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August Wilson's Jitney

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 19, 2017

August Wilson's Jitney Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Scenic design by David Gallo. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Darron L. West. Original music by Bill Sims Jr.. Hair & make-up design by Robert-Charles Vallance. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Cast: Harvy Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden, André Holland, Carra Patterson, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith, Ray Anthony Thomas, John Douglas Thompson.
Theatre: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Michael Potts, John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisholm,
Keith Randolph Smith, and André Holland
Photo by Joan Marcus

August Wilson, who built his playwriting name on his "Century Cycle" covering the African-American experience during each decade of the 20th century, eventually proved expert at intertwining myth and reality until it was impossible to tell which was which. But it can be easy to forget, or at least overlook, that not all of his plays take this tack. His early acclaimed works, in fact, may be oversize but are rigorously realistic in their depiction of blacks fighting a culture war it seems they're too often destined not to win. If Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are perhaps his better-known works along these lines, the Broadway debut of Jitney at the Samuel J. Friedman, in a Manhattan Theatre Club production, reminds you early and often that it deserves no less respect.

As is typical of Wilson at his best, here he derives his considerable amount of magic from the everyday, even pedestrian, situations that arise in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (the setting for the vast majority of his plays). The central wonder is that of a common brotherhood: with the city falling apart all around them in 1977, a group of men unite to operate a makeshift taxi service to survive the streets that are otherwise barely fit for human presence. Under the leadership of the serious, enterprising Becker (John Douglas Thompson), they're surmounting the odds and improving the lives of each other and those around them, though key issues don't disappear entirely: day jobs, get-rich-quick schemes to fill in the economic gaps, women (and the juggling thereof), and the looming threat of the blight that's overcoming Pittsburgh shutting down the jitney for good.

Family, though, is more central still, though the likes of the mysterious Aunt Ester and the Hedley family, who factor in a number of other titles, do not make front-and-center appearances. What you get instead is a potent, if occasionally predictable, look at the bond of father and son as represented by Becker and his boy Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), just released after spending 20 years in prison for a vicious crime, and the 20-something driver Youngblood (André Holland), whose ostensible domestic intentions may or may not involve his live-in girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson) and their child together. The rest of the brood is largely surrogate, counting the wise old uncle Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) and the constantly gossiping and bickering brother Turnbo (Michael Potts), who apparently has it out for Youngblood and any notions of propriety.

Michael Potts and André Holland with Harvy Blanks
and Brandon J. Dirden
Photo by Joan Marcus

The story and the relationships do not rivet because of their facts; there aren't many new ideas here, which is rare in Wilson, and there's a faint but detectable maudlin streak that becomes more manipulative than Wilson dared get in his later works. (Jitney was written in the late 1970s but not produced until the early 1980s, and it took another two decades or so to arrive at its final form.) Ultimately, though, little of this matters because the men won't let even a flimsy structure crumble.

Together they form a magnetic bond you can feel emanating from the stage, and, under the capable direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, have the properly melodic way with Wilson's epically musical downscale dialogue, which bestows an added respectability and sense of size to the street patois so many of these people speak. Some grasp it slightly better than others, and have equivalently richer portrayals as a result—most notable here are Potts, who has intricately carved Turnbo's hilariously violent personality, and Chisholm, who originated his "elder statesman" role in the acclaimed 2000 production of Jitney at Second Stage, and has lost, if maybe a bit of energy, none of his bite. But everyone is fine, including Keith Randolph Smith as the seen-it-all driver Doub, Harvy Blanks as the flamboyant numbers taker Shealy, and Ray Anthony Thomas as frequent passenger Philmore.

Where this mounting stumbles is with the externals. David Gallo's set does not sit comfortably in the space, and has a too-sweeping look that mutes some of the sense of claustrophobic dread. (The costumes by Toni-Leslie James, the original music by Bill Sims Jr., and the sound design by Darron L. West more accurately capture the mood.) And though Santiago-Hudson scarcely falters in his work with the actors, his staging of the scene transitions and one critical second-act moment come across as too self-involved, more about the unexpected effects of Jane Cox's lights (which are otherwise strong) than giving these moments the stark clarity they really require.

That's the danger with Wilson: His predilection for powerful monologues and wrenching grand themes from unexceptional struggles lead many directors to believe their stagings will fall short without the application of equivalently intense shocks. In truth, this is exactly what he doesn't need: The juxtaposition of the down-here men and women with their heaven-scraping ambitions is all that's needed; anything else can (and usually does) get in the way. The late-first-act confrontation between Becker and Booster, as but one example, needs no help—the two men coming to terms with their own guilt over Booster's mother's death is wrenching enough without any additional filigree.

Theirs is one of the most human problems there is, and Wilson captures that humanity, and the sweat and blood that go along with it, in all its intoxicating glory. With the right stakes, men can fight the world around them no less fearsomely than they can each other. And, as Jitney shows, they might very well win.


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