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© 2017, Joan Marcus
© 2017, Joan Marcus
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Theater: August Wilson's 'Jitney' Makes A Timely Bow On Broadway

Picture of Carey Purcell
Updated: 17 May 2017
The eighth play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle has finally opened on the Great White Way 34 years after its premiere in Pittsburgh. With Denzel Washington’s film of Wilson’s Fences currently enjoying critical success and winning awards, the late dramatist’s voice is ringing loudly.

There is no single hero in the compelling August Wilson play Jitney, which has been given a vital showcase on Broadway. But one walks away from the show with the sense of having witnessed actual heroism onstage.

An intimate glimpse into life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1977, Jitney is the only work in Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle that had not been previously performed on Broadway. Its opening at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in a divisive political climate (just before the Presidential inauguration) could not have been more timely.

Devoted during his career to portraying the lives of African Americans during each decade of the 20th century, Wilson skillfully brought the characters of everyday men and women to the stage while simultaneously highlighting the cultural, political, and economic forces that shaped them. Jitney exemplifies this idea. Set in the worn-down office of a car service company where local men spend time between rides, the 2 ½-hour drama encompasses everything from alcoholism and financial troubles to romantic relationships. The ability of the cast members to make the audience intimately acquainted with the characters’ lives and troubles is what makes the production so engaging.

'Jitney' | © 2017, Joan Marcus
‘Jitney’ | © 2017, Joan Marcus

Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who has performed in or helmed nine of the 10 plays in the cycle, Jitney features no frills — nor should it. David Gallo’s dreary, run-down set — there’s tape on the couch and grime on the windows — is carefully highlighted by Jane Cox’s lighting. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes feature then-modish flared jeans and leisure suits with contrast stitching. Most of the characters wearing these period-perfect duds, who come and go from the office, have drivers’ jobs because taxis won’t come to that part of town.

They’re a motley crew: the alcoholic Fielding (a wonderful Anthony Chisholm), the meddling gossip Turnbo (a very funny Michael Potts), the ambitious Vietnam vet Youngblood (André Holland, energetically charming), the mild-mannered Doub (Keith Randolph Smith, excellent), the numbers runner Shealy (a smooth Harvy Blanks), and Philmore (an amusing Ray Anthony Thomas), a hotel doorman. They’re employed and kept in line by Becker (a subtle John Douglas Thompson), who is surprised by a reunion with his son Booster (Brandon J. Dirden, fantastic), recently released from prison. The ensemble performs together beautifully, their constant clashing and overlapping resulting in scenes that resonate with authentic emotion.

Each of these men possesses strong personalities. Each is determined to pursue his individual goals and is reluctant to compromise in how he does so. No matter how much Becker admonishes him, Turnbo continues to gossip while defiantly stating, “I just live and let live.” Fielding is fired by Becker one day but returns the next to continue working. When the men learn of the city’s plans to board up the building, the result of gentrification, the threat of losing their jobs inspires them to come together for a common cause.

Such worries of working-class life inspire a question neither Wilson nor any other dramatist has yet to find an answer for: Are people ever rewarded for doing the right thing? Becker has worked his entire life, and when he wearily states, “You look up and all you’ve got is what you ain’t spent,” the phrase must surely echo strongly with members of the audience terrified of losing their health insurance. Becker is more than just tired, however. He still believes his time – and his fulfillment of the American Dream – will come. It just hasn’t yet.

‘Jitney’ | © 2107, Joan Marcus

The hope for that future can also be seen in Youngblood’s romance with Rita, his pragmatic, hard-working girlfriend, deftly portrayed by Carra Patterson, with whom he is struggling to build a life. Uncertain of his fidelity, thanks to his past indiscretions, Rita forcefully articulates what she needs from Youngblood, refusing his attempts to dodge her direct questions about why the grocery money went missing.

Following 2016’s outrage over #OscarsSoWhite and the subsequent celebration of #TonysSoDiverse, a cast of African-American actors on Broadway invites celebration. It should be remembered, though, that Jitney was written more than three decades ago and that Black Lives Matter protests are ongoing. At one point in the play, an older man bluntly advises a younger, “You just have to shake off that ‘white folks is against me’ attitude. Hell, they don’t even know you’re alive.” It’s unsettling that those words haven’t lost any of their currency,

Wilson died in 2005, but it’s clear that audiences still have much to learn from him.

Jitney runs through March 12 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036. (212) 399 3000.