It’s hard to believe that August Wilson’s Jitney has been around for more than 30 years and is only now making its Broadway debut. But given the subjects dominating the current public discourse, the Pulitzer winner’s intelligent, thought-provoking piece couldn’t have bowed at a better time. By turns hilarious and devastating, this is an emotionally bruising gem of a play.
Chronologically, Jitney is the eighth in Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle, a decade-by-decade series about African-American life in the 20th century, and it offers a glimpse into the daily lives of black cab drivers in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the late ‘70s. Money is tight and the city is slowly boarding up buildings in the once-vibrant neighborhood, but for the men whose lives revolve around the dispatch office of this gypsy cab company, the hustle continues.
Former mill worker turned jitney boss Becker (John Douglas Thompson, who appeared on Broadway with Jennifer Garner in 2007’s Cyrano de Bergerac) runs things like an exasperated father, wearing his affection for his men on his sleeve, ignoring squabbles and turning a blind eye to minor infractions until something requires his intervention. A respected member of the community and a firm believer in the American Dream, he’s worked hard to carve out a living for himself in the face of insult, indignity, and inequality, and though he doesn’t have much to show for his efforts, he’s sure he’ll get his due eventually. But his equilibrium is disturbed when his son (The Americans’ Brandon J. Dirden) comes home after 20 years in prison, and Becker is forced to confront the only aspect of his life that causes him shame.
Rounding out the cast is André Holland, fresh off his breakout turn in Moonlight, as Youngblood, a Vietnam vet working several jobs and attempting to navigate the bureaucracies of the GI Bill in hopes of gaining a foothold in an unfriendly economy. A reformed hellraiser, he’s a mass of contradictions — cocky, posturing confidence juxtaposed with vulnerability and insecurity. Gossipy Turnbo (Michael Potts, of True Detective and The Wire) is a maddening know-it-all whose incessant meddling causes strife with Youngblood and others; strapping, even-keeled Doub (Keith Randolph Smith, Broadway’s American Psycho) mediates with gravitas, but his bootstraps perspective isn’t always welcome. (“You just have to shake off that ‘White folks is against me’ attitude. Hell, they don’t even know you alive,” he tells Youngblood. “They knew I was alive when they drafted me and sent me over to Vietnam to be shot at,” the younger man retorts. “They knew I was alive then!”)
Obie winners Thompson and Dirden do remarkable work as estranged father and son, while Potts and Holland create a tense sense of animus that reaches an unexpected head. Tragicomic relief comes in the form of two heavy drinkers, Fielding (Tony nominee Anthony Chisholm), a driver, and Philmore (Obie-winner Ray Anthony Thomas), a regular customer. But Harvy Blanks, a veteran of all 10 Century Cycle plays, nearly steals the show as boisterous numbers-man Shealy, thanks in part to an assist from costume designer Toni-Leslie Jsmes, who has dressed him in eye-popping ensembles — think bright-green suits and glittery white boots, with hat and glasses to match.
Wilson’s dialogue captures the cadences of the day in a manner both timely and timeless; it’s like eavesdropping on an often funny, occasionally hostile, always honest discussion about race, urban development (or lack thereof), and relationships — between fathers and sons, men and women, coworkers and friends. The members of the ensemble who are Wilson alumni are especially adept at using their experience with the playwright’s poetic language to make their delivery effortless.
The talented cast soars under the confident direction of Tony-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, in his first turn at the helm of a Broadway production. His familiarity with Wilson’s oeuvre — both as a performer and as the artistic director for New York Public Radio’s unprecedented recording of all 10 plays in 2013 — serves him well, and other than a lighting flourish that seems out of step with the rest of the production, he offers a straightforward interpretation of the material.
With Jitney, Wilson shines a spotlight on the multi-faceted black American experience, and his work could have been written yesterday. It’s depressing to see how little has changed since he conceived the play three decades ago, and how many of the same issues are still relevant to the modern-day conversation. The questions he raises are important ones, without easy answers. From the stellar performances to the sharp script, Jitney is a substantial piece, and a breath of fresh air to boot. A