Might as Well Be Driving Jitneys

The M Ensemble is one of South Florida's longest-extant pro theater companies, and I like it a lot. It has a refreshing DIY vibe that is matched in Miami only by the fuck-it-all punk aesthetic of Mad Cat, over on Biscayne Boulevard. But M is cozier. Check out the photos of past and present patrons on the wall, the many folks hugging and kissing in the foyer, the gleefully offered free booze and birthday cake (which, by the way, should not be combined in excess). Witness, too, the audience yelling at the stage during the more wrenching scenes of August Wilson's Jitney. This would not go down at GableStage. The aura of, a-he-he-hem, art is too intimidating.

So dig the theater, dig the company.

What's difficult to dig is the wildly inconsistent production of the Wilson chestnut currently limping across M's stage. Not that it's a bad night at the theater — the show has luminous moments and ought to leave you feeling satisfactorily reflective, but for that you have to credit the script. Jitney comes equipped with enough emotional fireworks to be a soaring tour de force for any cast or director, but the underpowered production from the M Ensemble only hovers when it should fly.

Jitney is part of the Pittsburgh Cycle, the late, great Wilson's crazily lauded series of 10 plays about the black experience in the Pennsylvania city (and, in the case of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, in Chicago) during each of the decades of the 20th Century. Jitney is the Cycle's Seventies show, set in the spring of 1977 in Pittsburgh's Hill District in a dusty, tired-looking station for jitneys — unlicensed cabs. The station is overseen by Becker. One of his drivers is a drunk, another is trying to buy a house for his girlfriend and their child, and a third is a cranky old man who can't keep out of other people's bidness (the rest of the drivers are, alas, pretty much wallpaper). Becker's son is slated to get out of jail tomorrow. Over the course of about a week, various dramas erupt in the characters' lives, and those dramas are discussed, hashed over, and dealt with, or not, depending on the characters' fortitude.

The nice thing about M's production is the way elements that shouldn't work occasionally transcend the foolishness. I'm thinking especially about the young Chat Atkins, miscast as the hunched, elderly Turnbo. When Atkins first appears, you think he won't be able to pull it off — his aged mannerisms are so obviously affections, his pinched old-codger character voice so obviously a put-on, that your first thought is you'll never, ever be able to suspend disbelief. And then you suspend it anyway. It's Atkins's commitment to those silly mannerisms that does it; you think they're ridiculous, that Atkins is too young, but he doesn't think so, and it takes him only five minutes to sell it to you. It's a pleasure to watch.

Another pleasure: Andre L. Gainey's world-weariness as Becker, who faces the closure of his jitney station and resigns himself to the knowledge that, although his son is getting out of prison after 20 years, nothing will ever be right between them. You read it all on his face, and it seems like he'd still be cool to take out for a beer. His whole presence is a declaration: Hey, it's life, what are you gonna do?

And another pleasure: William Barnes as the drunken Fielding. You have to spend a lot of time around drunks to know how they can hold their heads high even in the pit of desperation. It's the dignity that comes from knowing you can't get any lower, spawned by the amazement you're still here to witness your terrible debasement.

But other things — certain elementary pieces of blocking (why on earth wouldn't Fielding keep looking out the window for his boss when he was sneaking a drink on the job?) and whole swaths of M's acting — need work. Actress Amber Wilson, who plays Youngblood's fiancée, would be a convincing performer if the audience could hear what she was saying. She should project. And Summer Hill Seven, as the recently incarcerated Scooter, loses his head in some of the most laughably overwrought and least convincing histrionics to implode on any SoFla stage in recent memory.

This mix of the transcendent and the incompetent adds up to a production that is just solid enough to let the play speak for itself — mostly about economic dislocation.

And it's interesting — I don't think it's possible to see this play now the way Wilson wrote it. The author spent a great deal of his career arguing for the autonomy of black theater. It was an ethic that got him into a heated public debate with critic Robert Brustein, who thought the theater should serve as "a unifying rather than a segregating medium." Wilson was into blackness. Although his work, by dint of appearing in major regional theaters around the country, was bound to be seen by largely white audiences, he wasn't writing for them. They could watch, they could empathize, but his shows were written for somebody else.

But I think Wilson knew damn well that themes are universal wherever you find them.

The central dramas of Jitney have to do with dignity, with making your way in a world that is largely indifferent to you. Of course such a concept was for decades foreign to white audiences, mostly secure in their homes, jobs, and upward mobility. The thought you'd have to fight for a place to live was theoretical. Now such concerns are ordinary life.

So if you're outside Wilson's stated target audience, why not head over to M Ensemble anyway? You'll see a good show, have a few laughs, feel a few emotions. As you do, remember this show was not written for you; it was written five presidents ago by a man with an instinctive aversion to universality. One can assume August Wilson hoped for a future in which the doubts and hardscrabble lives of his jitney drivers would be foreign to everybody. It'd be nice to share some of the ire his ghost must feel that things have gone exactly the other way.