Monday, January 30, 2017

Broadway Review—August Wilson’s “Jitney”

Written by August Wilson; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Performances through March 12, 2017
Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York NY

The cast of Jitney (photo: Joan Marcus)
The magnificence of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle”—ten plays, each set during a different decade of the 20th century, mainly in Pittsburgh—is obvious to anyone familiar with even one of the plays (or movie adaptations, like Fences with Denzel Washington).

All these plays played Broadway except Jitney—until now. Wilson’s captivating drama, set in 1977 at a car service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, finally makes it to the Great White Way in a triumphant production that’s another feather in the cap of the great playwright (who died in 2005) and his dependable collaborators, who make his singing dialogue and brilliantly realized characters come to eloquent life.

Distinguishing Jitney—along with Wilson’s other plays—is its epic humanity, confident swagger and refusal to condescend to its characters. The three-dimensional people onstage are flawed and hopeful, contradictory and sympathetic, all allowed to speak as real people do: the poetic dialogue that often pours forth in torrents of emotion remains true to each individual but also part of a larger dramatic truth.

Populating the jitney office is a cross-section of the Pittsburgh working class: drivers Youngblood, a Vietnam vet hoping to buy a home for his girlfriend and child; Turnbo, a middle-aged loudmouth who butts into everyone else’s business; Fielding, a lush who tries hiding his drinking; and Doub, a level-headed Korean war vet. There’s also Philmore, a loyal jitney customer; Shealy, a numbers taker who uses the office’s phone for his business; and Becker, the place’s manager, a straight shooter whose son Booster is getting out of prison after serving a 20-year murder sentence.

These men are trying to keep their heads above water financially and personally, and even when an immovable object is thrown in their way—the city is shuttering the whole block and razing the neighborhood’s businesses—they still find the strength to keep going against the odds. That varies by man (and woman—Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena only appears in two scenes but shows a sturdiness and resolve as strong as the others), but even takes powerful form in Becker’s principled refusal to acknowledge Booster when he returns from jail in a shattering closing first-act scene: “You’re my son. I helped to bring you into this world. But from this moment on…I’m calling the deal off. You ain’t nothing to me boy. Just another n--- off the street.”

This scene and more is enacted with exceptional aliveness and humane truth by sensitive director (and Wilson vet) Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adroit cast of eight, particularly John Douglas Thompson (Becker), whose stentorian voice has sometimes overwhelmed his dialogue in other plays: but he and Wilson are perfectly matched here, so much so that it’s surprising I haven’t seen him previously perform in other Wilson plays. Maybe that will change.

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