Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s Tony-winning revival of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” a triumphant melding of acting and drama, puts the audience in the unique position of eavesdroppers on the colloquial music of life.
This early Wilson play, the first to be written in his 10-play cycle exploring the 20th century African American experience, takes place in the 1970s. Although “Jitney” was first produced in 1982, it had to wait until 2000 for its New York premiere off-Broadway at Second Stage Theater in a version that was revised by the author.
That production, directed by Marion McClinton, remains for me a glowing memory, as I’m sure it does for many who saw it at the Mark Taper Forum earlier that same year. “Jitney” may not have the same stature as Wilson’s masterpiece “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” or esteemed favorite “Fences,” but in performance it casts an ensemble spell of revelatory humanity.
Respect for “Jitney,” the last in Wilson’s cycle to make it to Broadway, has been growing since Santiago-Hudson, a Tony-winning acting veteran of Wilson’s plays, directed this production at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in 2017. What was once dismissed as minor is now considered major. And it’s not because our standards have plummeted. Rather, it’s that the play, when fully realized by a company of actors working in communal concord, satisfies our growing hunger for complex and compassionate character truth.
“Jitney,” which opened Sunday at the Taper, is set at a gypsy cab station in Pittsburgh’s largely black Hill District, the site of most of Wilson’s plays. The drama is composed from the conversations of these workers and those who regularly drop by. It’s a symphony of gossip, bicker, complaint and reassurance that no one is dog-paddling out there alone.
These jitney drivers, operating outside the licensed system of white-run taxi companies that refuse to service the black neighborhoods, are a ragtag group. They’re survivors of a domestic war that America has studiously avoided acknowledging.
The linoleum of the dilapidated station is peeling and the couch looks like it has seen better days. David Gallo’s windowed set suggests the decayed cityscape without having to make it overly literal. The infusion of vintage-sounding soul (composed by Bill Sims Jr.) intensifies the sense of characters doing all they can to keep on keeping on.
So much of the chat seems idle, but Wilson isn’t merely exercising his gift for turning prosaic talk into lyrical dialogue. The plot of “Jitney” emerges out of the banter of characters, who talk not simply to pass the time but to reveal themselves and to work out their relationship to the historical moment.
“Plot” might be a misleading term for a drama that refuses to conform to the rules of conventional playwriting. A gun that appears in the first half of the play doesn’t determine how the action resolves in the second half. The structure of “Jitney” is more like a net that’s used to capture key aspects of the zeitgeist for a group of African American characters muddling through the bleak limbo of 1977.
The ideas Wilson explores in “Jitney” have to do with the generational struggle that’s been inflamed by the Vietnam War and the governmental failure to lift out of poverty a segment of society that has long been abandoned. Urban renewal, the program designed to combat urban blight, threatens to displace those who have been fighting to hold on. For those left behind, it’s a version of the military strategy of destroying a village to save it.
This is the dramatic context for this jitney station, which is about to be boarded up by the city so that it can eventually be torn down. Becker (Steven Anthony Jones), the boss of the operation, has been keeping this bombshell from his men as he figures out his next moves. He’s understandably distracted by the news that Booster (Francois Battiste), his son, is getting out of jail after 20 years for a murder sentence that has a complicated back story involving a false accusation of rape.
Becker, who hasn’t seen Booster since he went to prison, is still too full of anger that his once promising son trashed his life as though it were a piece of garbage. The confrontation between them that ends the first act is emotionally pummeling. Devastatingly acted, the scene clarifies the conflict between an older generation that has tried to work within an unjust and often demeaning system and a more radical younger generation determined not to be victimized any longer.
Becker and Booster’s stalemate is mirrored by the standoff between Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), a young jitney driver who served in Vietnam, and Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas), a garrulous older worker always nosing into everyone’s business. Youngblood is trying to buy a house for his girlfriend, Rena (a superb Nija Okoro), and their young son, but keeps running into infuriating obstacles. He has no patience for Turnbo’s trouble-making remarks and mean-spirited meddling.
A violent clash seems all but unavoidable. But Wilson is less interested in mining any potential melodrama than he is in exploring the contrasting worldviews between the aptly named Youngblood and the older jitney drivers, who challenge, rebuke and encourage him.
Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), a moderating influence at the station, tries to pass off some wisdom to his younger colleague: “You want to make something of your life, then the opportunity is there. You just have to shake off that ‘White Folks is against me’ attitude. Hell, they don’t even know you alive.” But wisdom in Wilson is always hard won.
We return to the plays not for answers but for an understanding of why the problems are so impossibly hard. The conflicts between the characters often involve nothing more than the cost of a cup of coffee, but what they’re really fighting for is a dignified foothold.
Santiago-Hudson’s actors make Wilson’s world seem like the one they were born into. What’s remarkable is that only Smith in the role of Doub, Anthony Chisholm as the old alcoholic jitney driver Fielding and Harvy Blanks as the colorful neighborhood numbers taker are reprising their Broadway performances. Thomas, who had a smaller role in New York, delivers a master class as Turnbo, whose flaws are so recognizable that it’s impossible to judge him too harshly or wish he’d shut his incendiary, hilarious trap.
The rest of the cast members are new to the production, but Cheatom has now become for me the incensed voice and brooding manner of Youngblood just as Jones has become the embodiment of Becker’s bruised moral authority and Battiste the image of Booster’s shadowed soul. This is an extraordinary company whose only fault is that some of the dialogue in the early going is rushed and not fully audible.
I didn’t want to miss a word of a production that makes the case that even this supposedly lesser Wilson work is a masterpiece by any other standard. There will be other “Jitney” revivals that will reanimate the life and times of these characters, but don’t make the mistake of skipping this one. It’s among the finest productions of a Wilson play I’ve seen.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m.Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Dec. 29 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $45-$125 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission)