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a Drama
by August Wilson

COMPANY : True Colors Theatre Company
VENUE : Southwest Arts Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 3753

SHOWING : May 05, 2010 - June 27, 2010



the seventies chapter of August Wilson's "American Century" saga. A Pittsburgh neighborhood jitney service is looking at hard times.

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No Free Ride!
by Dedalus
Friday, July 2, 2010
Few people look back on the seventies with much nostalgia. After all, this was the decade that gave us Disco, Est, Urban Blight, and my introduction to what was supposed to be a temporary job on the railroad, a temp job that still occupies my days. One of my earliest positions was that of “jitney driver.” For the railroad, a jitney was essentially a van used to deliver or pick up engine and caboose crews when they went on and off duty. Remember cabooses?

Which, of course, is not quite what August Wilson is writing about in “Jitney,” the seventies chapter of his “American Century” saga. Yes, his jitney drivers perform quick and easy pick-up and set-off duties, but there is critical difference. Here, the jitney company is a small-scale community business, using independent dues-paying drivers (who supply and maintain their own vehicles), and helping local folks with their errands or other “short run” trips. This was an apparently common practice in inner city neighborhoods across the country.

And, it being the seventies, the business is dying, and the neighborhood is being boarded up with only “pie-in-the-sky” plans for its ultimate disposition. The building is old, with a pot-bellied stove hidden in the back, cracked and yellowed linoleum squeaking underfoot, dirty windows barely letting in any light, the street outside is lost in shadow, and the door squealing with unoiled agony any time anyone comes or goes.

Even the sense of community is having its own blight. Owner Becker’s son is coming home after spending twenty years in jail for a senseless murder rooted in pride and betrayal. The son is less welcome than the city planners. Gossip-mongering Turnbo, guaranteed to think the worst of any situation, has his nose “in the business” of Youngblood, the young Viet Nam vet who might, just might, be on the road to a better future. Fielding is struggling to balance his need for community with his need for constant drink. Drivers and passengers come and go in an entropic dance of habit, giving the appearance of community without its substance.

Until, of course, sudden tragedy changes everything.

I’ve written before about my fondness for August Wilson’s cycle of plays. This was actually the first one written, but it was seriously revised for its 2000 New York premiere. Like his other remarkable work, this piece assembles a group of disparate characters, fills their mouths and minds with the sort of almost-poetic dialog that reveals and hides while it soars with passion and loss and frustration and pride and wit and disappointment. Plot points are slow to unfold, built more on the choices and failings of its characters, so a lot of time is spent getting to know them. Humor and wry observation is a constant companion of even the younger characters. And, when the tragedy comes, even knowing in advance that it is coming does not keep me from being moved and shaken.

True Colors’ production marvelously builds in intensity to its bittersweet conclusion. The set by Leslie M. Taylor is a marvel, an aged and dusty relic total evocative of the old storefronts I remember from 1970’s Harrisburg PA. Maybe having the sofa dead center rather than against the wall was a nod to theatrical convention, but it wasn’t a distraction. The lighting, full of sad ambers and lusterless golds, speaks of age and dust and shadow. Floor-to-ceiling windows do nothing to brighten the mood, as they are too dirty to see through.

And the performances are also of a caliber I’ve come to expect from True Colors. A true ensemble (no leading roles here), everyone fills just the right place in the mosaic of this story. Ellis Eugene Williams perfectly irritates as the busybody Turnbo, but he also carries a surprising vulnerability (and self-righteousness) that fill him out nicely. Yaegel Welch avoids the pitfalls of the “angry young man” role (Youngblood), showing us a decent fellow trying to overcome his past mistakes, while making a whole set of new ones. His Act Two reconciliation with his fiancée/girlfriend Rena (a marvelous Tracey Bonner) is both moving and unexpected. Cedric Young (Becker) and LaParee Young (Doub) provide the calm and mature ballast giving us characters seemingly in control and seemingly doing their best for their friends. Anthony Chisholm, E. Roger Mitchell, Eric Moore, and Geoffrey D. Williams fill out the cast, all with unique and memorable portraits.

So, the seventies are gone. Community jitneys are (mostly) gone. Even the railroad now contracts out its crew transportation business. And, unfortunately, after June 27, “Jitney” will also be gone. You owe it to yourself to find your way to the Woodruff Arts Center to catch its closing weekend. If you can’t get a taxi, maybe you can find someone in your community to give you a ride.

-- Brad Rudy (

Afternote: Before dumping on the seventies completely, let me add that the decade also gave us some of the best American movies ever, not to mention my lovely and talented spouse. :-)



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