It is rare indeed that a new Broadway production resembles an ole-time religion revival meeting. And yet “Jitney” at the Samuel J. Friedman theater does just that without nary a song or musical instrument visible. The music you see is all in the vibrant, earth-shaking, poetic dialogue of the late August Wilson. One feels his passing more acutely than ever. But his heart and his strong soul live on forever in his work. And no where can you feel it more strongly than his excellent play “Jitney.”
No one was more surprised than I, since I had since “Jitney” in a lack-luster production Off Broadway by the Second Stage nearly two decades ago. Set in the 1970s, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, “Jitney” seems to have grown in size and scope since last I saw it. In Rueben Santiago-Hudson’s razor-sharp, muscular staging, “Jitney” presents us unbelievably with a great NEW American play. And the theater season and the theater is better for it.
All of the Jitney cab-drivers presented here in a stunning ensemble of powerful actors’ acting up a storm, playing ordinary men struggling to get out of their ordinary lives and trapped there by The Man. There’s not a single white character onstage in “Jitney” but you feel the white man’s power still imprisoning them all in their low paying jobs and their lowered expectations of life.
The Jitney cab company here depicted on David Gallo’s extraordinarily detailed and evocative set seems to reek of tabacco, sweat and half-drunk cold coffee. The one sofa is held together by duct tape, and it’s coffee table is propped up on cement blocks. But yet these cab drivers seem to feel exhilarated if not free. It’s because they’ve all found decent jobs driving these jitneys, ferrying their black customers to other black areas of the Hill. And their filthy, battered pay phone is constantly ringing with calls because they know they are the only cabs in town that will pick them up and take them anywhere.
That nerve-wracking jangle of the phone never stops ringing like that for the length of the play. Business seems to be booming. And then you realize that they are the only ones who will take their people anywhere. So thank god these men are their to answer these constant calls.
The cast is excellent. Andre Holland, who is also one of the stars of the Golden Globe Award Winner for Best Picture, “Moonlight” is particularly fine here as a young Viet Nam vet trying to process everything that happened to him since he’s had to return to Pittsburgh after that unjust war and is trying to find a home and start a family with Carra Patterson.Both are graduates of NYU Grad Acting I have to point out. Holland is having a terrific year playing the love interest in both works. He is a rising star who has risen and it’s a pleasure to see his talent blossoming in to its’ fulfillment.
By contrast, we have the deadly father-son duo of John Douglas Thompson and his sonBrandon J. Dirden, who has just gotten out of twenty years in the state penitentiary for murder. “Jitney” reaches Shakespearean heights and shakes the rafters as the two confront each other with a lifetime of pain, loss and regret.
John Douglas Thomspon is surely one of our great, unsung classical actors and he’s found his great role here as just. fair man who is the overworked proprietor of this Jitney cab company. He is once a towering pinnacle of strength, but is reduced to tears by the plight of his ne’er-do-well son, who he never even went once to see in the 20 years of his incarceration.
The first play August Wilson ever wrote it is said, it is the last one of finally reach Broadway years after his death. Thank god, it’s finally here and in such a heaven-sent production,