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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Chronologically, Jitney is number eight in August Wilson's ten dramas about the African-American experience during the twentieth century — all of which except the 1920's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are set in the Pittsburgh Hill District where Wilson grew up and thus usually referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle. Unlike the other nine plays, Jitney was written in the same 1970s decade it represents. In other words, it was first in terms of creation but in decade-by-decade order comes closer to the end.
Though Jitney may lack the more fully developed structural sophistication of later plays, it has all the earmarks of the overall potency of the entire cycle's exploration of stories specific to lives of poor and often embittered black characters. The themes do however bring home universal truths about the struggle for dignity, love, security and happiness despite often overwhelming obstacles.
Jitney is also the only one of the Pittsburgh plays never produced on Broadway. In fact, it didn't even find its way to an Off-Broadway theater until 2000. Perhaps the fact that it's been criticized for making its fledgling roots too evident to rank with the heavyweights like Fences.
Yet, even Fences despite being Wilson's most popular and successful play and a Pulitzer Prize recipient, didn't make it to Broadway until 2010. Fortunately, that much lauded revival has recently been adapted into a film with its starry cast intact ( my review of the movie). Result: More Wilson enthusiasts than ever can now see the popular Fences and also MTC's beautiful production of Jitney.
As someone long on the Wilson bandwagon, any time I have a chance to see one of his plays, I'm bowled over by the authenticity and richness of the characters and the language. Fortunately, director Ruben Santiego-Hudson and his A+ ensemble have found a way to make us see past the flaws that tend to creep into even a master craftsman's early works.
Seeing Jitney just a day after refreshing my memories of the 2010 Fences production via the new movie adaptation, added a very special frisson to this Johnny-come lately Broadway revival of Jitney. The kinship between Roy Madsen of the later and more sturdily structured Fences and Jitney's Becker underscore the escalating strength of Wilson's storytelling and character portraits.
Like Troy, Becker is a man in his 50s who's committed to doing the right thing but who finds that doing right isn't always enough. He too has a fraught relationship with his son. But unlike Troy's son Cory, Becker's son Booster was incarcerated on a murder charge at age 19.
Jitney's main and most emotionally dynamic situation sees Becker faced with both the unlicensed livery service he heads threatened by urban renewal and an unwelcome reunion with Booster upon his release from prison. No wonder he at one point gives in to despair with "I'm tired of waiting for God to decide if he's going to hold my hand.
Becker isn't as fully developed a character as Troy, but the always riveting John Douglas Thompson manages to convey a sense of a complete and complex man. Though his big scene, is a sizzling heart clutcher, Thompson, who's one of the contemporary theater's outstanding Shakespearian actors, know how to effectively land a laugh as well as a punch to the gut.
Brandon J. Dirden is also quite fine as the fresh out of prison Boostr; so is Andre Holland as Youngblood, the cab company's youngest driver, whose story fuels the play with another fairly detailed sub-plot.
The more light-hearted secondary story revolves around Youngblood's surprise gift of a house bought for for his girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson) and their child that backfires. It again echoes recurring and more in-depth dramatized themes and characterizations to come. Becker's warm and encouraging interaction with Youngblood brings to mind the less judgmental relationship between Troy and the feckless son from a first marriage in Fences.
To make Jitney's arrival on Broadway especially timely. The threat of urban renewal in Jitney came full circle in Wilson's final Pittsburgh play, Radio Golf. And to add to this new Jitney's timeliness, the changes threatening to end the self-created jobs of its drivers have their counterpart in current events. New York's yellow cabbies are losing their relevancy to Uber, Lyf and other app-driven taxi services.
Though Becker and Youngblood's problems provide dominating story lines, Jitney is not a conventionally developed drama, but relies on an ensemble with a solid grasp of time and place to create a picturesque portrait of a particular group of struggling African-Americans. Thanks to Mr. Santiego-Hudson's well-paced, sensitive direction and the top to bottom excellence of this ensemble, Jitney works as a moving and entertaining collage.
Each member of this cadre of drivers in the unlicensed neighborhood livery service for which Jitney is named has a story to fill in the overall portrait. Anthony Chisholm who also played the endearing alcoholic Fielding more than a dozen years ago at 2nd Stage, again stands out. That said, however, everyone on this stage deserves a rousing "bravo."
Another important creative member of that long-ago Off-Broadway production aboard for this Jitney is scenic designer David Gallo. His stunning depiction of the ramshackle dispatching station also gives us enough of a view of the street outside — that includes a car parked in front of its tall front door and windows. No effort and expense has been spared to evoke the 1970s era, from the frequently ringing wall pay phone to the cheap pull-down shades once available in every 5 and 10 cent store.
The costumes by Toni-Leslie James further enhance the atmospheric setting. And the incidental music by Bill Sims Jr. flavorfully punctuates the between scenes pauses and supports the musicality associated with the playwright's dialogue.
Though somewhat too facile ending, but that again echoes the playwright's similar tendency to wind things up with crowd-pleasing sentimentality. But so what! In a world that continues to challenge us with tough changes, what's wrong with having all these strivers and strugglers come together for a an uplifting and bracing moment?
For more about August Wilson's career and links to his plays reviewed at Curtainup, check out our August Wilson Backgrounder.
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Jitney by August Wilson Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Cast: Harvy Blanks (Shealy), Anthony Chisholm(Fielding), Brandon Dirden(Booster), Andre Holland (Youngblood), Carra Patterson (Rena), Michael Potts (Turnbo), Keith Randolph Smith(Doub), Ray Anthony Thomas (Philmore), John Douglas Thompson (Becker).
Sets: David Gallo
Costumes: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting: Jane Cox
Sound: Darron L West
Original Music: Bill Sims, Jr.
Fight Director:Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: James Latus
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours with 1 intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club Samuel J. Friedman Theater 261 West 47th Street
From 12/28/16; opening 1/19/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 1/14/17
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