Regional Reviews: New Jersey
August Wilson's Classic American Play Jitney Shines in Outstanding Two River Revival
Jitney, the eighth play in August Wilson's ten-play "Pittsburgh Cycle" depicting a century of African-American life, is likely the simplest, most straightforward, realistic and casual of them. It is also the funniest, most involving, heartbreaking and meaningful. For those familiar with other outstanding plays in this monumental cycle, including the best known Pulitzer Prize winning plays Fences and The Piano Lesson, that may sound like hyperbole, but stick around and I'll try to explain. Or better yet, get over to the Two River website and order your Jitney tickets, and we'll talk later. Although Jitney's run has already been extended to February 25, the time is short.
Members of the Company
It is early Fall, 1977, at a gypsy cab station in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a particularly fateful day. The jitney station has been run for eighteen years by the well liked and respected, reliable and honest Becker. His 39-year-old son Booster is getting out of jail today after serving a twenty year term for murder. Becker blames their son for the death of his wife. She collapsed in court when Booster received a later rescinded sentence to the electric chair, and died without ever regaining consciousness. Becker has refused to visit or have any communication with Booster throughout his incarceration. Another out of the ordinary situation is faced by Darnell, who is addressed as Youngblood by the other drivers, who are all much older. It seems that Youngblood has been canoodling with the sister of Rena, his girlfriend and the mother of their young son. Rena has grown suspicious and is angling for a showdown with him. Furthermore, Becker has received an order to close down the jitney station from the city which is planning to tear down the block for urban renewal despite the fact that the district is already riddled with undeveloped properties whose buildings were long ago torn down in renewal's name.
It is to the credit of August Wilson, director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and an excellent ensemble cast, that in spite of all this, viewing Jitney always feels like a privileged opportunity to sit in on the everyday activities of a group of colorful, vibrant and very human and distinctive individuals. More than any other play in the Pittsburgh Cycle, there is precious little in the way of melodrama. There are neither mythic characters nor elements of magic realism. In their place, there is a naturalistic flow to the proceedings which evaporates any sense of theatrical artifice, breaking down the invisible fourth wall between play and audience. Only the best of theatre can achieve this.
Particularly compelling and heartbreaking is the nature and background of Booster's terrible crime. The background includes the relationship between Becker and his son long predating the crime that ruptured their lives. The precipitating events are sadly rooted in racism and, while the anger and perceived need behind Booster's behavior are understandable, there is no excuse or justification implied here. The emotions and actions extend beyond particular characters and race. The situation is specific, but the elements have universal relevance. Jitney's lesson about the deep consequences of even an isolated, impulsive act of violence is inherent, never preached. It is a message too often not understood among adolescents. It is profoundly, powerfully and persuasively presented in Jitney, a play I wish could be seen by every adolescent in America.
Chuck Cooper paints a powerful, compelling picture of Becker. An essentially admirable man who will go to great lengths to help even undeserving others, Becker is unable to display the tiniest bit of humanity to his son. Cooper makes us feel the pain that has so crippled Becker. Brandon J. Dirden perfectly captures the combination of hard working decency and youthful impetuosity of the driver-mechanic, making us root for him to hold his life together.
J. Bernard Calloway uses his eyes to convey the difficulty and discomfit that the chastened Booster has in maintaining his hard earned control and balance in the face of his father's continuing rejection. Roslyn Ruff is the smart, reasonable and likeable Rena whom we would hate to see Youngblood lose.
The other jitney drivers are played with sharply defined individuality and verisimilitude by Allie Woods, Jr. (Turnbo - a troublesome, gossipy fellow with a bad word for everyone), Anthony Chisholm (Fielding - a former tailor who is an alcoholic), James A. Williams (Doub - a Korean War veteran and steady fourteen-year veteran of the station). Harvy Blanks (Shealy - the sharply dressed numbers runner who uses the jitney station as a base of operations) and Ray Anthony Thomas (Philmore - a local hotel doorman and recurring customer) neatly complete the fine ensemble assembled here.
The scenic design for the jitney station by Neil Patel is a marvel. It has every detail detailed by Wilson, along with a complete set of additions which enhance the specificity of the setting. Outside the window of the jitney station is a steeply banked street on which we see what clearly appear to be two period full-sized automobiles in repair. The effective lighting by Rui Rita varies realistically with the time of day. The varied and richly arrayed costumes by Karen Perry contribute to defining each of the characters.
Inquiring people might like to be reminded that Ruben Santiago-Hudson is the author of his successful one-man play Lackawanna Blues and is currently playing the physician-father in the Broadway production of Stick Fly; J. Bernard Calloway is currently on leave from playing Delroy in Broadway's Memphis; and Anthony Chisholm is reprising the role of Fielding, which he played in the noted Second Stage production.
Although chronologically the eighth play in his Pittsburgh cycle of plays, Jitney is Wilson's earliest play. It was first produced in 1982 in Pittsburgh, but was not seen in New York until 2000 when it was successfully produced by the Second Stage Company and ran over 300 performances and won the Best Play Award from the new York Drama Critics Circle. In London, Jitney won the 2002 Olivier Award for Best Play.
A Broadway production for this lesser known August Wilson gem is long overdue. However, whatever star power might be sought by a producer of Jitney, it is unlikely that any actors can better the organic ensemble performance that respected Broadway veteran Chuck Cooper and the entire accomplished ensemble have brought to this terrific Two River Theatre production.
Jitney continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday 7 pm (excluding 2/22); Thursday - Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 3 pm) through February 25, 2012, at the Two River Theatre Company, Rechnitz Main Stage, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
Jitney by August Wilson; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson