Jitney is the first play written by two-time Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson for his ten chapter, decade by decade, Pittsburgh Cycle. Masterfully directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Manhattan Theatre Club’s vibrant production is as good as it gets. Every member of this virtuoso ensemble inhabits a fully realized character with distinctive carriage, gestures, speech and attitude. Not a moment feels less than voyeuristic.
Keith Randolph Smith, Harvey Blanks
It’s 1977. Pittsburgh’s Hill District is deeply depressed, rife with homelessness, alcoholism, violence, drugs, dilapidated living conditions, empty political promises, and people trying to pull themselves up by frayed bootstraps. A rundown, storefront Car Service gorgeously realized (inside and out) by Designer David Gallo, is the ersatz clubhouse of lifelong friends who work for honorable, straight-from-the-hip Becker (John Douglas Thompson), in addition to whatever other jobs they can get. Each has his own idiocentric character and history gradually revealed like slowly peeled onions. Incoming requests for livery are answered in accepted pecking order.
Andre Holland, Carra Patterson
Drivers: Youngblood, aka Darrell (Andre Holland), rejects any client he thinks is “gonna mess up” his car. Barely out of his 20s, the young man’s ambition is to buy a house for girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson) and his son. Still, he might be running around with Rena’s sister. Motormouth gossip, Turnbo (Michael Potts) has opinions (and judgments) about everything and a sizeable chip on his shoulder. “Brown car. You be ready cause I ain’t waitin’.” Gentle giant Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) remains haunted by his service in Korea. Fielding (Anthony Chisom), once a tailor for Billy Eckstein, retains a dash of genteel style despite constant, full-tilt inebriation.
Friends: Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), a sweet doorman at a local hotel, clings to his job like a life raft but is also periodically sauced and Shealy (Harvey Banks), a leisure-suited numbers runner in almost perpetual good spirits.
John Douglas Thompson, Michael Potts, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden
Two pivotal events affect this eloquent slice-of-life scenario. Pittsburgh threatens to board up and then tear down the block, potentially robbing the group of familiar, relatively secure livelihood. And Becker’s son Booster (Brandon J. Deardon) is released from 20 years in prison for the murder of a woman who cuckolded him. Becker can deal with the city but has never been able to reconcile his son’s action.
There’s a feud, a gun, a death (nothing to do with the gun), collective defiance, romantic misunderstanding, and lots of stories. Though times are tough, camaraderie bonds, exhibiting spirit that, though beaten, can’t be squashed. Every actor pulls his weight.
Harvey Blanks, Michael Potts, Brandon J. Dirden, Andre Holland
Toni-Leslie James Costumes are wonderfully specific to character as well as period and economic level. Bill Sims Jr.’s Original Music feels like the pulse of these people.
Frederick August Kittel, Jr. changed his name to August Wilson to honor his mother after his father’s death in 1965.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Michael Potts, John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph Smith, Andre Holland
August Wilson’s Jitney
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street