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A Thrilling Ride: Jitney at Ensemble Theater

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The setup: In August Wilson's thrilling Jitney, Becker (an incandescent Wayne DeHart) and his son Booster (Timothy Eric in full boil) meet for the first time in 20 years inside the car-service company owned by Becker in the hardscrabble Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where all ten plays of Wilson's great Pittsburgh Cycle take place.

Booster's been in prison for murdering his white girlfriend. In 20 years, his father has never visited him, blaming his son for the death of his wife. Accusations fly and cut each man. The deeper they slash, the more they reveal.

The execution: The big dramatic confrontation happens at the end of Act I, between father and son. Each is unwilling to yield and full of needless pride. The fight elicits tears and gasps -- from us. In one of Booster's kinder reminiscences, he invokes his father from his childhood: "You were a big man; you'd fill up the whole place."

That is perhaps the truest statement about actor DeHart you're ever going to hear. A peerless veteran of the Ensemble Theatre, he is one of Houston's finest actors, a superlative talent. He does indeed fill up the theater; his Becker anchors this production, although the cast is another one in a long list of the Ensemble's priceless ensembles.

Under powerhouse directing by Eileen Morris, all shine, but Byron Jacquet, as busybody Turnbo, and Joseph Palmore, as struggling Youngblood, are particularly memorable. Every man has a story, Wilson says, and he chronicles this diverse group who work at Becker's taxi service with glory, heartache and uplifting spirit.

The verdict: One of playwright August Wilson's strengths is that even his good men exhibit flaws, while the most vile of antagonists has something of worth inside him. It's a wide swath of humanism that guides him, and his plays are grand rivers that run wild for a stretch, open out into calm waters, then hit the rapids again. His works never fail to catch you up and leave you breathless.

Set in the '70s, Jitney explores -- among so many things -- the incipient flexing of power among blacks themselves. The future is theirs to command or make a mess out of. With rich and complex music, Wilson writes symphonies.

Jitney runs through April 24 at Ensemble Theater, 3535 Main. For tickets, call 713-520-0055.

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