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
September 25 through October 1st is Banned Books Week according to the American Library Association. One of the things I’ve often found most ridiculous about those people who try to ban or challenge books is that they never realize that this only makes the material in question more enticing. After all, who doesn’t wanna taste the forbidden fruit? Furthermore, would-be censors have a knack for attacking the books that are often those most worth reading.
Consider the following.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) By Mark Twain
Why It’s Been Banned: Coarse language, racial stereotypes and frequent use of the n-word.
Why It’s A Must Read: It’s universally considered one of the Great American Novels and one of the first works in American literature to use “colloquial style.” Aka written in vernacular English, with regional color thrown in. It is lso a scathing satire of certain entrenched attitudes, particularly racism. Is essentially the first, original, American “buddy-buddy” road trip story.
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) By Zora Neale Hurston
Why It’s Been Banned: For coarse language and explicit sexuality.
Why It’s a Must Read: This gorgeously written novel is now widely recognized as being a seminal moment for African American literature AND Women’s Literature. Zora began what Toni Morrison would continue.
The Grapes of Wrath (1939) By John Steinbeck
Why It’s Been Banned: Contains profanity and sexual references. Moreover, people were shocked by its depiction of the poor. Steinbeck later admitted his descriptions were sanitized versions of what really went on within such communities.
Why It’s a Must Read: Besides winning the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and being a key reason Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize, its widely considered one of the best English Language novels of all time. It has incredible historical context and one of the most discussed books in college classrooms and critical essays ever.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) By Margaret Atwood
Why It’s Been Banned: It has occasional profanity, a lot of sexuality, and for purportedly being offensive to Christians.
Why It’s a Must Read: Atwood’s vision of a United States being taken over by a totalitarian, theocracy remains as terrifying and vital as ever.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997) by J.K. Rowling
Why It’s Been Banned: For promoting witchcraft
Why It’s a Must Read: The entire Harry Potter series has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon and anyone who can read this book and not fall in love with Hogwarts is a hopeless Muggle.
Top photo from Bigstock
Avoiding talk about religion and politics is prudent, particularly during a dinner party like the one we see in Disgraced that brings together four friends from very different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The setting is an upscale apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a balcony providing a spectacular view of the Chrysler building. Amir Kapoor (Nehal Joshi) is a corporate lawyer at a major firm who specializes in the lucrative work of mergers and acquisitions. His wife, Emily (Ivy Vahanian), is an artist whose career is about to take off. The dinner guests include Isaac (Joe Isenberg), a Jewish curator who is helping Emily with a new show, and his African-American wife, Jory (Felicia Curry), a fellow associate at Amir’s firm. The evening begins on a civil note, but before the main course is served, tempers flare, accusations fly, and violence erupts.
Ayad Akhtar has written a play for our times, one that delves into topics that most of us think about but rarely dare to voice our opinions upon. After seeing this play, chances are conversations will follow. And in our current political climate, that’s not a bad thing. Disgraced, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is the most-produced play of the 2015/16 theater season. Akhtar, a novelist and screenwriter, has obviously touched a nerve about what it means to be an American and if assimilation, particularly for Muslims, is ever really possible.
Samir Raval and Nehal Joshi
Amir and Emily are an odd couple, and not just because of the differences in their backgrounds. He was born in Pakistan and raised as a Muslim. But with his feet firmly planted in America, he’s left his religion behind, deriding Islam as an ancient religion out of place in the modern world. Emily is obviously American and not Muslim. However, she tends to romanticize Islam and even uses Islamic images in her artwork. (The set design includes one of Emily’s paintings over the fireplace.) Amir’s nephew, Abe Jensen (Samip Raval), is similarly conflicted about his origins, having changed his name after being born Hussein Malik. Yet Abe is determined to help an iman who has been arrested and asks Amir to help. Amir initially refuses, but when pressured by Emily, agrees. Although Amir doesn’t actually represent the iman, his name winds up in the newspapers, exposure that will damage his position at his firm.
The evening of the dinner party, Isaac arrives a half hour early, followed shortly by Jory. While Emily rushes to get dressed, Amir, after rudely admonishing Isaac for arriving ahead of schedule, grudgingly pours drinks and attempts to entertain his guests. The mixup in timing is the first indication that things are about to go awry.
Conversation over the fennel and anchovy salad begins innocently enough, but when talk turns to Amir’s involvement with the iman’s case, the discussion grows more heated. Akhtar’s dialogue is, at times, searing. The playwright has talked about how his own struggle with his identity, ethnically and religiously, inspired the play. While Amir has made accommodations to be accepted and succeed in mainstream America, when challenged, he finds himself defending Islam even excusing acts of violence, a moment which produced gasps from the audience.
Joe Isenberg,Felicia Curry, Ivy Vahanian, and Nehal Joshi
The other explosions have less to do with identity and more to do with the typical conflicts that erupt when hard-driving professionals compete for success in the board room and the bedroom. Amir receives bad news on both fronts. How much his cultural struggles contribute to the outcome becomes less important than how he will move ahead.
Arena Stage’s production benefits from strong direction by Timothy Douglas who also directed Arena’s King Hedley II. Confrontations between the actors, both verbal and physical, are staged for maximum effect. Pacing is impressive. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the action never flags and when the lights go down, the audience is left breathless.
The four actors are up to the challenges. As Amir, Joshi displays an impressive range, from a hard-hitting attorney at the top of his game, to someone who sees his dreams crash and burn. Emotions are conveyed, not only with facial expressions, but with body language. In the beginning he seems puffed up by his own importance; by the end, he seems deflated.
Vahanian goes toe-to-toe with Joshi, never backing down even when faced with her own wrong-doing. We watch her transformation from loving, idealistic wife, to a woman who can stand on her own and no longer needs to define herself as part of a multi-ethnic couple.
I found Curry’s performance most powerful. Her time on stage was less than the other actors, but she left such a strong impression that her absence was immediately felt. Isenberg’s character came off as the least likable, someone who was ready to cross even those closest to him in order to achieve his goals. As Abe/Hussein, Raval’s performance was telling, reflecting the conflict felt by so many young Muslim men who struggle to fit into a society that often targets them.
Set Designer Tony Cisek has created the quintessential Manhattan apartment for urban professionals. Even before Amir and Emily begin their first conversation, we understand their aspirations and life-style. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James are perfect, while lighting by Michael Gilliam and original compositions by sound designer Fitz Patton take us from scene to scene and heighten the emotional impact.
Disgraced is a provocative evening of theater. Don’t miss it.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Opening: Left to right, Joe Isenberg, Nehal Joshi, Ivy Vahanian and Felicia Curry
1101 Sixth Street SW