Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Though it’s been nearly a dozen years since August Wilson’s untimely death, the relevance of his themes and the raw beauty of his language has not diminished with time. If anything, Wilson’s writing appears to be gaining wider popularity. The recently released film version of FENCES, about a gifted ballplayer who, because of race, is barred from playing in the major leagues, scoring handsomely at the box office and has deservedly garnered myriad award nominations. Back in New York, another vibrant chapter in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle is receiving its long overdue debut on Broadway.
Like FENCES, JITNEY captures the cadences and concerns of daily life to in Pittsburgh’s Hill district, the cultural and economic heart of the Steel City’ black community. The time is 1977, and the Hill is, like the rest of the country, going through profound changes. In an America that FENCES’ protagonist would hardly recognize, black athletes dominate the sports pages and high level career opportunities are no longer limited to white males. Not all new developments are positive, though. The economy is declining, especially in industrial towns, and crime is on the rise. In an effort to revitalize cities, whole neighborhoods are being bulldozed by politically popular “urban renewal” efforts. This isn’t good news for Becker (John Douglas Thompson), who makes his living running a car service in a neighborhood that’s targeted for demolition. Becker’s shop represents more than just a livelihood for the men who work there. Its demise would signal the end of a way of life. Becker considers moving the operation to a new spot but, as he tells his right hand man Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), he’s growing old and weary.
While Becker searches for a solution, dramas large and small are played out in the jitney station’s cluttered front office. Vietnam veteran Youngblood (André Holland), strives to build a better life for his girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson) and their son, but must first rebuild the trust broken by his past infidelities. Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), once a tailor to many jazz luminaries, now depends on the jitney job – and whatever else he can borrow – to sustain a worsening drinking habit. Turnbo (Michael Potts), can’t stop himself from kibitzing about everything from checkers to relationships. Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas) has a steady job at a nearby hotel and sends plenty of business Becker’s way. His personal life is another matter, as his taste for the nightlife keeps getting him in trouble with his old lady. Dapper Shealy (Harvy Blanks) drops by to promote his numbers racket. Most crucially, Becker’s estranged son Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), whose promising academic career was derailed by a violent episode, is out the state pen after serving a 20 stretch for murder. Becker’s disappointment in his son is matched only by Booster’s own sense of disillusionment. Unable to reconcile with his father and uncertain of what the future holds, Booster has no clue how to devise a plan for his life. But as an unexpected turn of events reveals, life has a plan for him.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who has himself acted in several of Wilson’s plays, understands the pace of the play perfectly. Neither rushed nor sluggish, JITNEY moves as a clip that allows its plot, and its characters’ arias, to rise organically from the rhythms and routines of everyday life. Like their characters, the actors vibrantly assert their individuality while contributing to the larger mosaic. Of course, the cab stand itself is a character, and every detail of this mostly male environment, however seemingly haphazard, is meticulously arranged by set designer David Gallo. Likewise Toni-Leslie James’s period costumes, from the fading elegance of Fielding’s waistcoat to the flared cuffs of Sealy’s aquamarine polyester trousers, speak volumes about the aspirations, histories and agendas of the people who wear them. The visual touches combine with the virile lyricism of the dialogue paint a clear-eyed but deeply affectionate portrait of a pre-Twitter era when, however imperfectly, people still talked to each other.
JITNEY continues in an open run at the Samuel j. Friedman Theatre 261 West 47th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Broadway/August-Wilsons-Jitney/Overview