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August Wilson's Jitney

Review by Tulis McCall
January 24, 2017

Sometimes I think of August Wilson as a composer. The text of his plays comes through as music. Sometimes it is not what people are saying, it is the melody they are creating with their lives. I remember a friend of mine recalled seeing James Earl Jones in Fences and saying that his performance was operatic. His lectures were oratorios.

I remember feeling that about the most recent incarnation of Fences with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and the specific moment was when she joined in his litany about standing still for 18 years and said "I have been here too."

In the same way, Jitney has moments that are transcendent. This is the story of a car service in the Hill District of Pittsburgh - home to all of Wilson's plays. It is 1977 and the very fine set by David Gallo and costumes by Toni-Leslie James will convince you of that fact, especially if you were alive in 1977.

Becker (John Douglas Thompson) runs the joint, and the organization appears loose to the observer until you pay attention. There is an order and a hierarchy. The one phone in the place is a public phone that takes DIMES (How I miss that sound of the coins falling into place), and each man knows when it is his turn to answer and pick up a ride. While they are waiting they do what people do. They pass the time. With stories that chronicle their lives. The stories weave together as they come and go. Turnbo (Michael Potts) takes read when he is not up in everyone else's business. Most recently he took a kid on a fare where he picked up a television set and took it to a pawn broker. Come to find out he stole it from his now Grandmother. What is the world coming to? Healy (Harvey Blanks) is a number man who uses the station for his office and is suffering from a broken heart. Youngblood (André Holland) is a Vietnam Vet trying to do the right thing for his woman, Rena (Carra Patterson) in a backwards kind of way. Doug (Keith Randolph Smith) is a Korean War Vet who has forced himself to center his life, but his duties among the dead have never left him.

Into all of this comes the stranger in town - a necessary plot point - in the form of Becker's son Booster (Stephen Tyrone Williams, the understudy giving a very fine performance) who has just been released from jail after 20 years. He murdered a young white woman with whom he was having a fling. When she and he were caught she accused him of rape. Oops.

So what plays out here, because Wilson never seems to run out of plot lines, is the story of Becker and his son, Youngblood and his woman, the fact that the building is two weeks away from being torn down - and that's just the half of it. Where I was riveted were the two major confrontations - one between Becker and Booster and the other between Youngblood and Rena. Not only were the performances spot on, but Wilson digs deep. These characters stand their ground and hook each other in over and over again. There is no right or wrong. There are only people splitting their chests open to display their hearts - even though none of them would admit it.

As to the overall piece, it felt a bit disjointed on the one hand and predictable on the other. There were no real surprises for me, although I have to admit that I was in the minority because this audience was vocal in their response to what was happening. It was as if the music of the piece swept off the stage and grabbed them up. And of course it is thrilling to see a show that is not of white people, by white people, and for white people. That alone is reason to sit up and take notice.

(Tulis McCall)

"Conversation sings and swings, bends and bounces and hits heaven smack in the clouds, in the glorious new production of August Wilson's 'Jitney.'"
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"August Wilson's 'Jitney' delivers a gripping ride."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"'Jitney' is set in 1977 but like all of the other works, it speaks with an eloquence that transcends time and place."
Roma Torre for NY1

"A soul-sustaining, symphonic piece by a late, great master, about fathers and sons, workers and their dreams—deliverance for audiences hungry for soaring language and tough truths. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson steers a powerhouse cast through the dense alleyways and along the majestic avenues of Wilson's language."
David Cote for Time Out New York

"Actor-turned-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson's natural feel for the plays of August Wilson yields a superb production of this final work in the late dramatist's landmark 10-part cycle to make it to Broadway."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

"With August Wilson's 'Fences' playing in movie theaters and Andre Holland attracting Oscar buzz for his star-making performance in 'Moonlight,' Manhattan Theater Club should draw crowds to this pitch-perfect revival, with Holland in the fine cast, of another play in Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. Although 'Jitney' was the only one of Wilson's ten plays that hasn't previously had a Broadway production, this ensemble piece about gypsy cab drivers trying to make an honest living during the 1970s economic depression remains one of Wilson's best plays."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - NY1 - Time Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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