By April Stamm
If we are to be a fly on the wall in an appropriately dilapidated car service station for over two hours with nothing to do but watch the blindingly real comings and goings of cab drivers, a couple of their family members, and a small time bookie, it better be a pretty enthralling jitney station. Lucky for audiences at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway production of August Wilson’s Jitney that those nine souls onstage are mesmerizingly heartbreaking, passionate, comical, and true.
The last of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be staged on Broadway, Jitney is set in 1977 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and captures Wilson’s unique vision of the African American experience. This production begins before the house lights even dim on Becker’s (John Douglas Thompson) old, crumbling, but somehow ordered gypsy cab station. To discuss the plot of “Jitney” is a strange thing, because while it could be said that hardly anything happens, what does happen is everything.
The cab station is in peril of being torn down by the city within a month and the drivers band together to hold their ground. Meanwhile, the youngest driver in the crew, Youngblood (André Holland), secretly buys a house for his girlfriend, Rena (Cara Patterson), the mother of their two-year-old son, all the while she thinks he’s running around on her with her sister. Becker’s son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), returns after twenty years in prison. Shealy (Harvy Blanks), the neighborhood bookie, takes in bets and pays on bets. While some of the happenings are life changing in nature, others are wholly common place, and it all unfolds without melodrama but rather with the steady, burdened pace of living a life full of struggle and frustration, but also spiked with deep love and commitment.
Jitney is only as good as its ensemble. They are complete and realized characters, but also represent a snapshot of 1970s Pittsburgh and the African American experience on a larger scale. To pick out one or two shining stars would do a disservice to the beautiful orchestration of the acting company in this production. Perhaps because many in the cast are August Wilson veterans, there is an authenticity and ease with which the actors flow through the work, including Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction, which provides the cast with cohesion, nuance, and clarity.
Crafting the perfectly realistic yet ethereal backdrop for the play, scenic designer David Gallo, lighting designer Jane Cox, and sound designer Darron L. West build a Pittsburgh that is achingly beautiful in its mundanity. The cab station is packed with dilapidated details: a couch that sags just so, a touch of soot on the giant windows to the city, and peeling and fading wall paper— all staged in front of a city backdrop that seems to evoke memories. Tony-Leslie James’s costumes embrace an era so easily made outrageous. There are leisure suits and leather blazers that do not mock themselves but instead suit the real lives of the characters who don them.
Do I suggest you see a play full of heartbreak and struggle, in which the characters have regular frustrating arguments, occasionally ignore each other, and almost never resolving anything? Absolutely, because this production—both Wilson’s script and the ensemble that embodies it—show life. Not just in the 70s, not just in Pittsburg, but in all of its hardness and tenacity.
August Wilson’s Jitney
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W 47th Street, NYC
Through March 12
April Stamm is a freelance theatre, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to Edge Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center.