Review: ‘Jitney’ at Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J Friedman Theatre

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A remarkable new production of August Wilson’s play Jitney is now available to us all, thanks to the Manhattan Theatre Club, which has staged it on Broadway as the last of the Wilson 10 play cycle to play there. The first play he wrote, it was the one that never saw Broadway. This was remarkable because it clearly shows the vibrant new voice that belonged to this self-defined poet who wrote it in 1979 though it was first seen in 1982 at the Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh. After several regional theatre outings it opened off Broadway in 1983, and there it enjoyed a run of 307 performances runs at the Second Stage and later at the larger Union Square Theatre. Here was a writer who, at 39, finally found the firm ground on which he would spend the rest of his life furnishing us with ten major plays that covered all aspects of life in the Black community of the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the city in which he’d been born.

John Douglas Thompson (Becker), Michael Potts (Turnbo), Anthony Chisholm (Fielding), and Brandon J. Dirden (Booster). Photo by Joan Marcus

He knew when he began that his goal was to cover that Black experience of the entire twentieth century, and for starters he chose 1977, the year in which he set his play in a dingy office in the Hill, a run down gypsy car service non union drivers who helped the locals carry carloads of food home from the groceries, and brought some home from the night spots where they’d become too drunk to drive themselves.

The play introduces us to eight randomly selected men and one woman who are living out their ordinary lives, most of them in some messed up way. On one particular day they gather either to accept whatever assignments might pop up or to simply use the office as a way to get out of the house. The extraordinary thing about this beautiful play is that Wilson captures all of them with affection and accuracy, though he takes no sides. There are a father and son who have not spoken in years, a couple who are living together harmoniously but without benefit of marriage are forced to deal with and resolve a major misunderstanding, an immature addict must decide how to deal with his problem.

Though the issues are ordinary, the quality of the writing raises them to almost epic proportions. These people are not all emotionally connected; they are not a family, but they are all familiar with each other, and their lives overlap and entangle. It’s a slice of life play, but it rises above the ordinary by keenly observing the nuances and the contradictions that constantly bubble to the surface as each of them is given a chance to question, to explain, to demand, to exchange and to consider all the conflicting points of view that sometimes soothe but mostly interfere with their very individual ways of seeking satisfaction. Most have abandoned all hope of happiness, but they still entertain the dream of peace that has been so difficult for them to achieve.

Eugene O’Neill tackled similar material in The Iceman Cometh, William Saroyan brought a very different approach a bar full of unfortunates, and here in August Wilson is a new recruit who brings freshness with a singular voice that is both accurate and poetic in its persuasive imagery.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a writer-actor-director has acted in or staged nine of Wilson’s ten plays. He has said: “I turned director because August told me, when I was appearing in his Gem of the Ocean, that I should be directing his stuff.” When he could, he directed a version of it at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. He has now appeared in or directed nine of the ten plays in this cycle, winning a Tony for Seven Guitars. He has done a masterful job in steering this, the first of the cycle, to its berth on Broadway, for it was not seen by many in its original run in smaller theatres in 1983.

He has assembled a miraculously perfect cast for the current outing. These nine actors have vast experience, many of them in other plays by Mr. Wilson, but though this one is structured as an ensemble piece it gives every one of them a chance to take stage and bring focus to their character and their piece of the puzzle that makes the whole thing a mosaic. If there is one central tale that binds them all together, it is the one involving  Becker, who runs the business, and his son Booster who has just completed a 20 year prison sentence for murder. John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden play father and son, and their scenes build to a smashing climax. They alone raise the play from melodrama to tragedy. But each of the seven other actors is capable of delivering thunder and lightning as well as humor to the proceedings.

The cast of ‘Jitney.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

I stayed for a talkback session after the matinée I attended, and when asked how he felt about playing twice on the Saturday, Mr. Thompson said this was just the start of a five-performance weekend, and he looked forward to every minute. The audience response, plus the actors’ growing knowledge that this company is offering a very special experience to its audiences provides enough adrenalin, for they know they don’t experience this kind of exchange with an audience each time at bat.

The Manhattan Theatre Club’s Jitney is an unheralded masterwork that will stay with me along with a handful of other towering moments in my travels among the theatres of the world.

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, plus one intermission.

Jitney is playing at The Manhattan Club performing at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre – 261 West 47th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, visit the box office, or purchase them online.

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