AUGUST WILSON'S JITNEY AND DAVID HENRY Hwang's Golden Child occupy the north and south poles of a shared planet: Though situated at what would seem to be opposite ends of the Earth, their landscapes are strikingly similar. Both plays are about family and its attendant, even ancestral, obligations, and the agonizing costs of severing blood ties. Both plays inhabit metaphorically icy worlds across which blow vicious, frigid winds that leave their inhabitants crippled, if not dead.
Set in a gypsy-cab garage in 1977 Pittsburgh, Jitney concerns drivers trying, however awkwardly, to rise above their situation in the face of such leveling gusts. For instance, when the city threatens to board up the garage, the drivers' ambitions roll smack into their need to hang on to what they've got. In Golden Child, Hwang's denizens of a 1918 Chinese village must choose between clinging to their traditional stations in life and bending to winds of change blowing in from the Christian West. In this regard, both works grapple with the intermingled struggles to move ahead and to remain in place -- struggles that shape most human endeavor. Which is why both plays, despite their shortcomings, have such strong backs. And teeth.
Against these howling winds, the characters in these plays laugh, dance, pray, rage, sing, cry and get drunk (or smoke opium). You'd almost think they were Irish. And indeed, Jitney's cocksure men of God and quasi-violent pistol toters -- with their wit, their belligerence and their love of storytelling -- are an African-American theme-and-variation on Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, while Golden Child's culture clash brings to mind Brian Friel's Translations, about the domestic fallout of Ireland's subordination to Oliver Cromwell's army.
Seven guys hang out in, or pass through, Jitney's decrepit "car service" office, in which the entire action unfolds. While waiting for the pay phone to ring (usually the summons of a customer for a cheap cross-town shuttle), they play craps, hit each other up for small loans, berate and console each other, get drunk, get mad, get fired and, best of all, tell stories. In some ways it doesn't matter who's telling what story, for The Story keeps emerging as a character in itself, told to help pass the time, like the singing of a song. Wilson's plays all have a kind of Celtic musicality spiced with American jazz riffs. When crusty Turnbo (Stephen McKinley Henderson) repeats in different scenes his indignation at a passenger who once used the cab service to steal his (the passenger's) grandmother's television set, the effect is that of a musical refrain. Indeed, director Marion McClinton hits the notes of hubris, humor and irony right on the mark, with the help of a charismatic ensemble.
In this rather hypnotic atmosphere, Wilson intricately sculpts a few plotlines, carefully planting information designed to spin on itself in later reversals. For instance, Turnbo, despite his avid denials, is a busybody who repeatedly accuses Vietnam vet Youngblood (Russell Hornsby) -- an unwed father -- of having no sense. When Youngblood's girlfriend, Rena (the entrancing Michole Briana White) -- the mother of his child and the play's only female presence -- shows up at the office looking for her partner, she finds only Turnbo, who triggers Rena's alarm when he "lets slip" that he recently saw Youngblood driving with Rena's sister. Turnbo, an interfering moralist who gets almost everything wrong, is among the many impediments Rena and Youngblood must overcome in order to find their way out of the taxi-service alley.
The play's world, however, turns on the axis of the taxi company's owner -- also a local minister -- Becker (Paul Butler, with a basso profundo that informs his entire character), and on the arrival of his son, Booster (Carl Lumbly), returning after 20 years in the state penitentiary. The ex-con needs a job as desperately as he needs his dad's forgiveness, but the preacher offers neither.
"I just came from Mama's grave," Booster pleads, trying to touch the heart of the older man, who instead lets the office door swing closed in his son's face, triggering a collective gasp throughout the theater. The play almost runs aground on this father-son iceberg, and the emotive follow-up scenes veer perilously close to self-parody.
Wilson has been tinkering with Jitney for some 20 years, and it still doesn't work dramatically. The accidental death, near play's end, of a pivotal character is probably meant to depict the incontestable truth that death, like accomplishment or failure, is somehow arbitrary. That jolt and its aftermath are like a large coin rolled into a house of cards: The play comes tumbling down around it, not because such sudden death lacks veracity -- planes do fall out of the sky, after all -- but because the architecture of Wilson's play has a kind of delicate, carefully crafted logic that is anything but arbitrary.
STYLISTICALLY, JITNEY AND GOLDEN CHILD COULDN'T be more contrary, which is what places one in the Arctic, the other in the Antarctic. David Gallo's set for Wilson's kitchen-sink drama details the gypsy-cab headquarters -- with its decaying checkerboard-lino tiles, its pay phone and its chalkboard -- against the exterior backdrop of a graded alley, boarded-up buildings, the silhouettes of fire escapes and, most impressively, a trio of shabby cars parked one behind the other on the sloping street, like a skybound caravan -- realistic and metaphoric at the same time.
Golden Child, a memory play that grabbed a 1997 Obie and a 1998 Tony nomination, is here presented as a Spartan, platformed affair -- played mostly on and around stools -- in which West meets East as Eng Tien-Bin (Daniel Dae Kim) returns to his three Chinese wives (Amy Hill, Emily Kuroda and Kerri Higuchi) in the provinces near Amoy after a three-year jaunt in the Philippines. He brings with him a phonograph that grinds out arias from La Traviata, and along with it Christianity and its cheerleader, the Rev. Anthony Baines (Robert Glaudini), a well-meaning missionary.
Having been born again, Mr. Tien-Bin must scale back in the wife department from three to one, which creates a revealing competition among the women, made especially awkward by the traditional Chinese virtue of humility. ("Bear your praise bravely," one wife tells another.) Other traditions that must be vanquished include ancestor worship -- "Forget your mother and save yourself, or else be washed away like the peasants in the flood" -- and foot binding. Tien-Bin proudly orders his own daughter's (Melody Butiu) feet unbound, a transition to freedom that doubles her pain as the blood returns to bruised capillaries and broken bones.
For such paradoxes, Hwang's play is both beautiful and wise. Chay Yew's staging -- with Joyce Kim Lee's lavish costumes -- is visually majestic, if a bit glib in tone, as though Yew feared the play might feel too precious without a few sarcastic spins on the dialogue. (It wouldn't.) Similarly, a number of supporting performances tend toward the monochromatic, although none of them does serious damage.
Victoria Petrovich's set design features a maroon backdrop that sometimes appears marbled under José López's lights. Within that "wall" is set what looks like a large shoebox planted with bamboo stalks. In a downstage corner, musician Phuong Tieu accompanies the play on a stringed erhu (original music by Joel Iwataki). All of which makes for an attractive frame in which to tell a story, and suggests that the play is more abstract and exotic than it really is.
Golden Child is, after all, a rather straightforward meditation on the comforts and constrictions of family. And the Christian modernity of which the play speaks is as hostile to "family values" as the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzales. In this world, after all, opportunity often comes from leaving kin behind, be they parents, ancestors or offspring. Meanwhile, in Jitney, Becker moves on with his life by actually slamming the door in his son's face. Cold comfort indeed.
JITNEY | By AUGUST WILSON | At the MARK TAPER FORUM, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Through March 19
GOLDEN CHILD | By DAVID HENRY HWANG | Presented by EAST WEST PLAYERS at the David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St. (formerly San Pedro St.), Little Tokyo | Through February 20