By Karen Isaacs
Jitney, which is getting a belated Broadway production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is August Wilson’s play about the 1970s. While it has many similarities with other plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle, there are also significant differences. Perhaps that is because Jitney was the first play in the cycle Wilson wrote (1979) though he extensively revised in in 1996. It debuted off-Broadway in 2000.
We are looking at the experience of mainly African-American males in Pittsburgh in the ‘70s. Most of these men have seen the changes wrought by the Civil Rights movement. Also several have served during wartime, either WWII, Korea or Vietnam often leaving residual scars.
Jitney takes place in a run-down office in the Hill neighborhood where Becker runs a jitney car service. (Mainstream cabs would not go into the Hill neighborhood at the time.) Between calls the various drivers hang out and talk. In the group are some obvious types: Turnbo who is into everyone’s business and has an opinion on everything; Youngblood the Vietnam Vet, who is the youngest of the group; Fielding who is perhaps the oldest and drinks excessively; and Shealy who runs numbers out of the office as well as drives. We also have Rena, Youngblood’s girl friend and mother of his son and Booster, Becker’s son.
The play revolves around three things that are occurring. The first is Youngblood’s attempt to buy a house for Rena and his son. Unfortunately since he wants to make it a “surprise,” Rena suspects he is unfaithful particularly when Turnbo tells her he has seen Youngblood often with her sister.
Once again the city administration is dispossessing businesses and residents and boarding up buildings for “urban renewal” which never seems to occur. The jitney office is threatened and all the drivers are unsure where they will go.
The third major issue is that Becker’s son Booster is being released from the penitentiary where he has served 20 years for killing his girlfriend. During that time, Becker never visited him.
Wilson is known for his spectacular use of language –creating almost poetic jazz-like riffs for the various characters. He is also known for invoking the supernatural; often one or more characters seem to be conduits to other spirits or worlds.
Both of these elements are minimized in Jitney. This lack doesn’t hurt the play, but it does make it seem different from other Wilson works. Here the conversations are more natural dialogue and the individual speeches are shorter and less poetic. As for the supernatural, in this staging there is just one minute where it appears and is never talked about.
Just as in Fences, this is a play that at its heart is about father and son relationships as well
as understanding and forgiveness. Youngblood (a rather obvious name) is like a son or younger brother to the other drivers. Becker as the owner/operator of the jitney service is like a father to many of the men, particularly when he must tell Fielding that he can’t continue drive if he is drinking.
The main father-son relationship is between Becker and Booster. Booster threw away a promising future (he was a freshman in college) for what he explains was a need to stand up for himself. When his white girlfriend told the police he had car-jacked and raped her rather than acknowledge their relationship, he killed her. Becker believes his son’s conviction and sentence of execution (which was later commuted) killed his wife.
The ensemble of actors that director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has assembled seem to know these character and they have tremendous skill in letting us know them also. At the center of the ensemble is John Douglas Thompson as Becker. This is the up-standing man who wants to do what is right, who controls his emotions and his anger, at least most of the time. He is also the average man who is trying to run a business and provide for his family. But he is haunted at what happened to Booster; like all fathers, he wanted him to have a better life, to achieve more than he has. Thompson shows us this with every gesture, every vocal intonation and every movement.
Fielding, the older driver who drinks, is played by Anthony Chisholm with a mixture of regret and cunning. He knows that no matter what Becker says, he will not truly fire him. Michael Potts plays Turnbo, the driver who stirs the pot with his gossip and opinions on everything. Potts manages to avoid making him malicious; he is just the man who enjoys riling people up whether it is with opinions or gossip. Harvy Blanks also shows us the humanity of Shealy – the hustler.
The three younger characters are portrayed equally well. Carra Patterson as Rena combines the doubts of a woman who is afraid her man is cheating, the confused mixture of resentment and gratitude when she learns he has bought her a house but that she did not have say in selecting it and love. It is all there in her expression and her tone.
André Holland is Youngblood and shows us this complex man with the impetuousness of youth as well as the good intentions and the sometimes thoughtless behavior.
As Booster, Brandon J. Dirden may be older (40ish), but his past has also kept him young. When we first see him, he looks like a professional, until we realize he is the son who spent 20 years in jail. Dirden lets us see this duality – in some ways he has never grown up and is still back in his late teens rebelling against his father and the compromises Becker made in his life. But by the end of the play, Dirden shows us a man who has seemingly grown-up overnight.
The climax of the play is the scene between father and son where each explains his perspective and the reasons for his actions. It is angry moment but it so clearly illustrates the generational difference.
Santiago-Hudson has kept the play moving; it’s about two and a half hours, but seems shorter. He is aided by the outstanding scenic design of David Gallo of the jitney office. It looks absolutely authentic. The production elements – costume design by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Jane Cox, sound by Darron L. West and original music by Bill Sims, Jr. all add to the overall affect.
Do see Jitney at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., through March 12. Tickets available through Telecharge.