Eleven years after his death, playwright August Wilson answers Donald Trump’s bleak depiction of “inner cities,” with “Jitney,” the first play Wilson wrote in his ten-play American Century Cycle, but the last of the ten to be produced on Broadway, in a superbly acted and directed production that’s running at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater through March 12.
The new president’s only reference to Black America in his inaugural address was a bleak and oblique one, “mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities.” In Wilson’s 1979 play, which takes place in 1977 in a gypsy cab station in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, we get to know the drivers, their passengers, and their family members. Some feel trapped, yes; some, defeated. But each has a story to tell, and a full life of faults and wisdom and talents that Wilson presents with humor and empathy. For all their constant bickering and occasional angry confrontations, there is a web of relationships that together fit the very definition of a community, with an always-present past and a hoped-for future. That their livelihoods are being threatened by City Hall’s well-meaning plan to demolish the cab station and the surrounding neighborhood in the name of urban renewal, adds an extra layer of irony and relevance, given the new president’s vague and ominous promises of improvement.
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Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson makes the play as lively and funny as it should be, but seems to locate its heart in two sets of relationships. Becker (the always magnificent John Douglas Thompson) is in charge of the car service station, and deals fairly and calmly with everybody with whom he comes into contact – except his son. Booster (Brandon J. Dirden) has just been released from prison, where he served 20 years for killing his white girlfriend. We learn why he did so – she claimed Booster was a stranger and falsely accused him of rape when her corporate executive father discovered them together. The confrontation between father and son, wrapped up in their differing notions of what it means to have dignity, is powerful and heartbreaking.
Then there is the relationship between the young driver Youngblood (Andre Holland, a rising star now best-known for the films “Selma” and “Moonlight”) and his girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson.) Youngblood, a Vietnam veteran, is hard-working and ambitious, and chafes under the feeling that the world (i.e. the white world) won’t give him a break. “You just have to shake off that ‘white folks is against me’ attitude,” fellow driver Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) tells him. “Hell, they don’t even know you’re alive.” Youngblood was once a womanizer, and Rena, who is the mother of his two-year-old son, is worried that he hasn’t changed. She doesn’t trust him; he resents her distrust. I won’t spoil how this plays out, except to say that it is touching to the point of tears. “You already my pride. I want you to be my joy.” The hopefulness of their relationship feels like a counterweight to the hopelessness of that between father and son.
If these two relationships feel like the Yin and Yang of “Jitney,” each of the nine characters – and each actor – gets their moments. Michael Potts is amusing and spot-on as Turnbo, an incurable, sometimes menacing gossip. Anthony Chisholm as Fielding is a drunk, but a dignified one with a surprising past. As Doub, Keith Randolph Smith gets some of the most memorable lines. Two frequent car service customers add to the atmosphere of the station and the texture of the play – Ray Anthony Thomas as a doorman who is proud to have worked every day for the past six years, when many people he knows are unemployed; Harvy Banks as Shealy the numbers runner, who is dressed in one colorful now-cringe worthy 70’s suit after another. The costume design by Toni-Leslie James works in concert with set designer David Gallo to nail down the time and place, as does the original music by Bill Sims Jr, a mix of funk and blues and jazz.
The plot of “Jitney” does not conclude as artfully as those in Wilson’s later work, such as “The Piano Lesson,” which seem to spring from the characters rather than feeling imposed (rather abruptly) by the author. But Wilson’s strengths as a portraitist, and his ear for dialogue, are evident from the get-go. Each of the characters in “Jitney” gets to tell their stories, in a language that is street poetry — astute, authentic, deeply satisfying in its imagery and its rhythms. It’s fitting that in 2013 Santiago-Hudson directed radio broadcasts of all ten of what is sometimes called Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. There is one play for each decade of the 20th century, all set in Pittsburgh, which Wilson wrote over more than two decades and completed the year of his death in 2005.
From the moment Ruben Santiago-Hudson saw his first August Wilson play, he was “smitten, captured, put in a spell,” he told me in 2013. “Nobody had represented me with such integrity; nobody seemed to have the love for me and the people I knew like August did.” That love comes through in this pitch-perfect production.
Santiago-Hudson was not the only one smitten.
Denzel Washington was also smitten. He is getting wider attention to Wilson’s work right now, thanks to the movie version of “Fences” that he directed and is starring in. “Fences” was revived on Broadway in 2010 with much the same cast as the movie, the last previous production of a Wilson play on Broadway before “Jitney.”
There is convincing evidence that Wilson’s American Century Cycle will become even more popular as the 21st century continues: Washington plans to bring all ten plays to the screen. Whatever happens in the decades to come, for the moment at least, “Jitney” feels not just rewarding, but necessary.
MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater
Written by August Wilson; Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Original music composed by Bill Sims Jr.
Set design by David Gallo
Lighting design by Jane Cox
Costume design by Toni-Leslie James
Sound design by Darren L. West
Cast Harvy Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden, André Holland, Carra Patterson, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith, Ray Anthony Thomas and John Douglas Thompson
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $79.00 – $159.00
“Jitney” is scheduled to run through March 12, 2017