Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s restaging of his 2017 Broadway production of Jitney at Arena Stage—bringing to town much of the design team and several of the actors—is a terrific kickoff to a season-long festival celebrating the monumental playwright August Wilson.
The bustling story, set within an unlicensed cab station in Pittsburgh’s predominantly black Hill District, is the earliest written installment of Wilson’s magisterial 10-part Century Cycle chronicling the 20th century African-American experience. Jitney predates the series—it was written in the 1970s by a young man shaping his voice—and although it was thoroughly rehabbed in 1996 by a mature man near the end of his career, it serves as a kind of incubator for what was to come.
Jitney closes October 27, 2019. Details and tickets
There’s much that’s familiar to those who have seen the better-known masterworks of the playwright’s celebrated decalogue, from the specifically Wilsonian assortment of characters and the rhythms of male ensemble interaction to the themes of generational conflict and societal change. In many ways, Jitney, Wilson’s first produced full-length play when it debuted in 1982, is a direct antecedent and rough draft for the Cycle’s later installment Two Trains Running (1990).
But there is some observable contrast with the later work. While certainly exhibiting the striving of the black working class within larger historical forces, an idea central to Wilson’s work, the play is ultimately more optimistic. It’s also funnier solely for funny’s sake, weighted more with the casual humor drawn from the loose comings and goings of the characters. Compare Jitney to Two Trains Running—the latter tells essentially the same story, but is sharper, more disciplined and purposeful with consequence.
It’s not that Jitney doesn’t pack a punch, because it does, but it’s more often just a hoot to watch. One of the keys to Wilson’s greatness lay in his ear; the way he listened to and transcribed the speech of the men around him, imbuing his characters with a rich poetry. The characters of Jitney are clearly drawn, producing a splendid chorus of the down-and-out and greatly dignified. Made more distinctive by the strong cast, the Wilsonian archetypes are already recognizable in this early work.
There’s the upright, hard-working patriarch Becker (Steven Anthony Jones), who owns the dilapidated but busy car service, providing a livelihood and a community to the other drivers. Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) is a softer paternal figure, a peacemaker dispensing reason and leading by example. Wilson’s cherished fools provide much of the comedy, including the gossipy, impotent Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas in a highlight performance among highlights—he had the audience in stitches) and supafly Shealy (Harvy Blanks), the charming, leisure-suit wearing neighborhood hustler.
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Wilson’s work is known for its “lunatic seers,” men and women who experience the world in an extraordinary fashion due to a psychic imbalance. I see the doddering alcoholic Fielding (expertly portrayed by Anthony Chisholm) is the first, though less-severe shoot in a family tree of Cycle visionaries that includes Gabriel (Fences), Hadley (Seven Guitars), Hambone (Two Trains Running) and the recurring Aunt Ester (Gem of the Ocean).
And no Wilson play is complete without struggling young men frustrated by the system. Jitney provides two of them: Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), an enterprising hothead trying to support his girlfriend Rena (warmly portrayed by Nija Okoro) and their child; and Booster (Francois Battiste), Becker’s once-promising son who followed his furious pride into tragedy.
The actors are generally outstanding, from Blanks’ snazzy entrances and Thomas’ interlocutory sporting to Chisholm’s grizzled croaking. The father-son conflict between Becker and Booster give Jones and Battiste the opening to have it out in a couple of raw scenes of emotional discharge.
Wilson’s scripts are known both for their jazz and their blues, and Santiago-Hudson, a longtime Wilson adherent, choreographs the group dynamics superbly. The gregarious interplay between the men as they constantly come and go from the station is engaging, but the author’s monologues are often where his work enthralls. You start to see those gifts emerge in Jitney, where some of the most memorable scenes include Fielding revealing his past stature in the community; Doub addressing individual responsibility; and Booster telling his father when it was exactly that he stopped seeing him as a “big man.”
The production is assisted tremendously by David Gallo’s veraciously designed set—the lived-in details pop and the painted Hill District backdrop is gorgeous—Jane Cox’s skillful lighting, an eclectic array of 1970’s wardrobes from costumer Toni-Leslie James and Bill Sims, Jr.’s funky rock, jazz and blues interludes reminiscent of the era.
Santiago-Hudson’s jubilant and moving revival of the lesser-known Jitney is a chance to experience vintage Wilson. It’s an imperfect work previewing the street-aria language and bruising truths that define the Century Cycle. This full-throated story about the noisy lives of a collection of cab drivers may be the closest to Wilson’s own reality, as he wrote it in the time that it’s set. What’s for certain is that it shows that he was already interested in pursuing the themes and artistic goals that would come to define his career—most specially expressing the unique musicality of the African-American voice through the decades of the last century.
More locally produced plays by August Wilson this season:
Fences, Ford’s Theatre, opens Sept 27, 2019
Radio Golf, Everyman Theatre, Opens October 15, 2019
Seven Guitars, Arena Stage, opens April 3, 2020
Jitney by August Wilson. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Featuring Francois Battiste, Harvy Blanks, Amari Cheatom, Anthony Chisholm, Brian D. Coats, Steven Anthony Jones, Nija Okoro, Keith Randolph Smith and Ray Anthony Thomas. Scenic design: David Gallo. Lighting design: Jane Cox. Costume design: Toni-Leslie James. Sound design: Darron L. West and Charles Coes. Original music by Bill Sims, Jr. Stage manager: Kamra A. Jacobs. Produced by Arena Stage in association with Manhattan Theatre Club. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.