Thursday, January 19, 2017

120. Review: JITNEY (seen January 15, 2017)


It’s taken three and a half decades for the late August Wilson’s 1979 Jitney to make the bumpy (and much revised) journey to Broadway, following its 1982 premiere at a small Pittsburgh theatre, including a stop along the way for a hit Off-Broadway production in 2000. The last of Wilson’s ten-play, 20th-century, decade-by-decade cycle about African-American life in working-class Pittsburgh to reach Broadway, it’s snugly parked on the stage of the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s revved-up Manhattan Theatre Club staging.

Andre Holland, Carra Patterson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Andre Holland, Ray Anthony Thomas. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Set during the autumn of 1977 in the beautifully decrepit dispatch office of a Hill District gypsy cab service (“jitneys” in the local vernacular), it introduces its eight men and one woman in the kind of loose storytelling format associated with plays set in barrooms, hotel lobbies, and workers' lunchrooms. The principal plotline has the familiar scent of socially oriented melodrama: the city plans to board up the place and build something else, thus depriving the struggling drivers of their livelihoods. The righteous boss, Becker (John Douglas Thompson), has a plan to fight back, thus giving the play a structural framework, but the real interest is in the intensely vivid characters, their electric, richly accented language, replete with aria-like speeches, and their emotionally fraught relationships.
John Douglas Thompson, Michael Potts. Photo: Joan Marcux.
Keith Randolph Smith, Harvy Blanks. Photo: Joan Marcus.
These relationships include the tension between Turnbo (Michael Potts, compelling), a volatile, gun-owning driver, who keeps butting into others’ affairs, and Darnell Youngblood (André Holland, truthful), an edgy young Vietnam vet whose girlfriend, Rena (Cara Patterson, expert but looking slightly out of place in this world), and the mother of his kid, has caught Turnbo’s eye. There’s also the Youngblood-Rena story, with its suspicions and jealousies related to Youngblood’s attempts to buy a house. Each of the other characters reveals much about his own issues, of course, like the alcoholic Fielding (Anthony Chisholm, convincing), once the tailor for singer Billy Eckstein, or Shealy (Harvy Blanks, likably flashy), the numbers runner who says he’s never been able to love anyone since his breakup with his gal Rosie; he vows not to marry until he finds a woman in whose face he doesn’t see hers.  
Brandon J. Dirden, John Douglas Thompson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jitney’s primary conflict is between Becker and his son, Booster (Brandon Dirden), just released after 20 years in prison for having killed the white girl who, having been discovered by her wealthy father in flagrante delicto with Booster, accused him of rape. The confrontation late in Act One between father and son over the latter’s betrayal of his parents’ values is alone worth the price of admission. 

As Becker, Thompson once again demonstrates his ability to bring dignity, strength, and sensitivity to men of authority, while Dirden captures both Booster’s defiance and guilt in responding to his disillusioned father. Still, this scene, coming when it does, creates a structural imbalance since nothing afterward is remotely as explosive; the second act, while always interesting, is anticlimactic, never rising to the emotional heights achieved in the first. Making Act Two more problematic is the fate of a central character, disclosed near the end, that seems unearned.
John Douglas Thompson, Michael Potts, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Paul Gallo, who also designed the Off-Broadway production, has created a striking setting representing the seedy, crumbling interior of what must once have been an attractive, wood-accented store, set on a street corner whose apex is up center; we see the street outside, including the cars parked there, through the large windows upstage. Jane Cox has done her inimitable best to create atmospheric lighting, Toni-Leslie James’s costumes are right out of the mid-70s, and Darron L West’s jazz-inflected sound design adds immeasurably to the world on view.
Harvy Banks, Michael Potts, Brandon J. Dirden, Andre Holland. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As with all of Wilson’s plays, Jitney is like a boxing ring for champion actors, and, with Santiago-Hudson’s coaching, this production is a slugfest of performance give and take. A minor caveat: there’s so much high-octane acting one wishes the actors could now and then step on the brakes.
Michael Potts, John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph Smith, Andre Holland. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There may be no jitneys in New York but there are plenty of other ways to get to the MTC. It’ll be well worth the ride.


Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through March 12