|Courtesy of Boneau Bryan Brown|
It Took A While for This August Wilson Play to Make Its Broadway Debut, but it Was Worth the Wait
By Lauren YargerAll of Pulitzer-Prize winner August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle plays have made it to Broadway at one time or another -- some more than once-- but Jitney, which is the eighth in the series, written inn 1979, is getting its debut in a sensational production by Manhattan Theatre Club.
A talented ensemble, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony for his performance in WIlson's Seven Guitars, brings together a group of jitney (illegal taxi cab) drivers in 1977 Pittsburgh in an emotional ride that makes us laugh while running over our hearts.
The men drive for Becker (the always excellent John Douglas Thompson) out of a run-down station (shabbily designed and filled with clutter by Set Designer David Gallo) in Pittsgurgh's Hill district. Regular taxis won't venture there, so customers, like hotel doorman Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), have to rely on the jitney car service.
For Darnell Youngblood (Andre Holland), the job is one of two he works to try to buy a house to provide a fresh start for his family: girlfriend, Rena (Carra Patterson), and their young son. He wants it to be a surprise, but Rena thinks he is cheating on her again because he never is at home and keeps taking food money to pay unspecified debts.
Also driving for Becker are Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), a Korean War veteran who knows a thing or two about discrimination, Turnbo (a very humorous Michael Potts), who is always getting in everyone's business, and Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), whose alcoholism might get him fired. They interact as well with Shealy, (Harvey Blanks), who uses the phone at the station to take numbers.
The men's everyday existence is interrupted, however, when the city decides to board up the station as part of its urban renewal efforts, and when Becker's son, Booster (Brandon j. Dirden) is released from prison after a 20-year sentence for the murder of a white woman who wrongly accused him of rape. Booster hopes to reconcile with the father who feels his son threw away all of the opportunities he worked so hard to provide. Beyond that, Becker is unable to forgive Booster for not being there for his dying mother.
While all of Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle plays provide a glimpse into the 20th-Century African-American experience, Jitney feels contemporary, despite the fashions by Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James or mentions of cab fares topping out at $4 that remind us we are in the '70s.
Santiago-Hudson keeps the house lights up at the beginning as the men assemble. We can't help but feel we are sitting around the station with them. We grow comfortable sharing their lives and banter. Perhaps it is because all of the men, in one way or another, are trying to heal wounds of the past while stepping into an uncertain future - like most of America today.
A gripping scene where Becker rejects Booster opens a wound that can't be healed and is so full of raw emotion that there are audible gasps from the audience.
It is due to fine writing, acting and direction (with uncanny attention to detail) all bursting into emotional fire on stage. It also might have to do, again, with recognizing some of the bottled up emotions we are experiencing in modern-day America.
Booster's justification of his actions, with no apparent understanding of right from wrong or consideration for others -- while seeming for all intents and purposes a nice man -- sounds frightening like so many voicing their opinions about politics today. Youngblood and Rena's discovery of what it really takes to make a relationship work is touching and hopeful.
This is one of those shows that makes us sit up and take notice as though it is telegraphing, "You are seeing a tremendous and important piece of theater here. You might want to see this one again."
Jitney plays at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., NYC. Tickets: manhattantheatreclub.com
The creative team for August Wilson’s Jitney includes David Gallo (scenic design); Toni-Leslie James (costume design); Jane Cox (lighting design), Darron L West (sound design); Bill Sims, Jr. (original music); Robert-Charles Vallance (hair and makeup design) and Thomas Schall (fight director).