24 February 2017

'Jitney'


Until two weeks ago, I had seen eight of August Wilson’s ten Century Cycle plays.  Up till then, I’d missed the last one he wrote, Radio Golf, the play that covers the last decade in the century and was completed in 2005, the year it premièred at the Yale Repertory Theatre, and the first cycle play the dramatist composed, 1982’s Jitney, the play that covers the 1970’s and the only one of the decalogue that hadn’t been presented on Broadway before now.  But on Friday night, 10 February, I met my frequent theater companion, Diana, at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in the Theatre District to see the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of Wilson’s play.

Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who’s staged or appeared in many of Wilson’s Pittsburgh plays, MTC’s Jitney began previews at the company’s Broadway, and Tony-eligible, house on West 47th Street on 28 December 2016 and opened on 19 January  2017.  The run is scheduled to close on 12 March.  According to his introduction to the special edition of the play text published this year (Overlook Press) to mark the Broadway première, Santiago-Hudson explained that two weeks before the playwright died in October 2005, he asked the director “to bring Jitney to Broadway.”  The director proclaimed:

There had been nine jewels placed in August Wilson’s formidable crown, each had changed the landscape of Broadway in their respective seasons.  Until now, only one gem was missing.  With the production of Jitney at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel Friedman Theatre the final gem is in place.

Wilson (1945-2005) wrote Jitney in 1979 and it received its first production at the small Allegheny Repertory Theatre in Pittsburgh, the playwright’s hometown, in 1982.  (The story is that Wilson and his mother arrived at the opening performance in an actual jitney.)  The Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, presented a one-act version in 1984 independently of the earlier mounting.  In 1996, Wilson rewrote the play extensively for what was essentially its second première at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, directed by Marion McClinton—the first major Century Cycle première that wasn’t directed by the late Lloyd Richards, Wilson’s principal collaborator.  During the next four years, Jitney was produced nationwide in dozens of theaters, such as the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey (1997), and Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company (1998).  Wilson continued to revise the play occasionally and it came to New York City, opening Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre on 25 April 2000, winning the 2000-2001 Outer Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play.  It closed on 10 September and moved to the Union Square Theater on 19 September 2000 for a commercial run until 28 January 2001 (2000 Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play for August Wilson; 2001 Lucille Lortel nomination for Outstanding Play).  The play opened in London at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre, running from 16 October through 21 November 2001, winning the Olivier Award for best play of the year. 

After the Crossroads and Huntington Theatre presentations, CenterStage in Baltimore, the Studio Arena in Buffalo, the GeVa Theatre in Rochester, New York, and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago staged the play in 1999; Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum presented it in 2000; the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., presented it in 2001; the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2002; Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C., in 2007; and the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., in 2008—among many others around the world.  Ruben Santiago-Hudson, director of the MTC Broadway première, staged a production in 2012 at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey; the cast included Anthony Chisholm, who also appears, in the same role, in this mounting.

When Wilson, born Frederick August Kittel, Jr., in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, wrote Jitney, he hadn’t conceived of  the Century Cycle of the African-American experience in the United States through the 20th century.  He always knew he wanted to be a writer, and educated himself at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library after dropping out of high school in 10th grade.  He particularly favored the works of Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, and other black authors.  He went on to add Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges, playwright Amiri Baraka, and writers Ed Bullins and James Baldwin to his reading repertoire and he discovered the music of the blues, especially Bessie Smith, jazz, spurred by hearing John Coltrane in his home neighborhood, and hip-hop, which Wilson called “the spiritual fist of the [black] culture”; the art of Romare Bearden; and the political ideas of Malcolm X.  After the 1965 death of his father, a German immigrant from Czechoslovakia, the nascent writer adopted his mother’s maiden name, Wilson. 

After years of working in menial jobs, including janitor, porter, short-order cook, gardener, and dishwasher, Wilson started writing, sitting in bars and other public spaces where he observed the people of his neighborhood who would become his characters and absorbed their language.  But he was writing poetry at this time.  He helped found the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District in 1968 and wrote his first play, Recycling, in 1973.  Other plays followed in the ’70s and early ’80s, one of which was Jitney.  Then he conceived of his magnum opus (though, I suspect he didn’t think of it that way at the time), the cycle of plays recounting the black American experience in the 20th century, one play dedicated to each decade of the period. 

After Wilson began what became known as his Century Cycle or Pittsburgh Cycle (a misnomer since one play isn’t set in Pittsburgh), starting in 1982 with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (the only one of the 10 not to be set in the Hill District), Wilson extensively revised Jitney for its 1996 second première and fit it into the cycle as the eighth play in the series.  (It’s the only play of the 10 that was actually written in the decade it covers.)  The playwright continued to compose work outside the cycle, including his last piece, the autobiographical How I Learned What I Learned (2002), a solo performance piece he planned to perform for the Signature Theatre Company’s season devoted to Wilson’s work in 2006-07.  (Signature’s Wilson season, the only one it’s devoted to a non-living playwright, came to fruition after the dramatist’s death, but without the monologue; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, director of the Broadway staging of Jitney, stood in for Wilson in How I Learned at Signature’s mounting of that monodrama in 2013.) 

Wilson, who died of liver cancer on 2 October 2005 (age 60), finished the last play he wrote for his decalogue, Radio Golf, in 2005 and saw it premièred at the Yale Repertory Theatre but didn’t survive to see it open on Broadway in 2007.  Fourteen days after his death, on 16 October 2005, the Virginia Theatre on Broadway, owned by Jujamcyn Theaters, was renamed in his honor, one of the few Broadway houses named for a writer and the first to be named for an African-American. 

Overall, August Wilson’s a magnificent prose poet, with rhythms redolent of his influence from blues, which the writer calls, “My greatest influence . . . because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have,” and jazz, which gave Wilson the improvisational quality of his scripts.  He makes his characters street poets and he takes from collagist Bearden “the fullness and richness of everyday ritual . . . rendered without compromise or sentimentality.”  He’s not good with plot, however, and he needs an editor: Wilson’s said he tries “to make my plays the equal of [Bearden’s] canvases.”

In creating plays I often use the image of a stewing pot in which I toss various things that I’m going to make use ofa black cat, a garden, a bicycle, a man with a scar on his face, a pregnant woman, a man with a gun.  Then I assemble the pieces into a cohesive whole guided by history and anthropology and architecture and my own sense of aesthetic statement.

In a quotation I jotted down from a wall panel at an exhibit of his work back in 2011, Bearden said: “The function of the artist is to organize the facts of life according to his imagination.”  This seems particularly applicable to August Wilson’s dramaturgy, especially in light of the assessment of the Village Voice’s Michael Feingold: “He just didn’t bother to contrive and manipulate as a way of narrating those destinies.  His sense of life was too powerful—perhaps too overpowering—for him to bother with that.”  His characters, nonetheless, are actors’ dreams and his language is delicious.  
The decalogue is truly a magnificent achievement by any measure.  In a New York Times column about Wilson’s cycle, Ben Brantley pronounced that the series “will be remembered as one of the great achievements of the American theater, a work unrivaled by any contemporary in its expansive scale and richness of voice.”  Nine of Wilson’s cycle plays were mounted on Broadway over 23 years, an accomplishment neither David Mamet nor Tom Stoppard matched, according to the Times’ Jason Zinoman.  Critical acclaim was nearly unanimous for every staging—though there was also common criticism for the author’s haphazard and overburdened plotting, wordiness, and digressions.  All of the nine Broadway productions were nominated for Tony Award, though Fences is the only one that won (twice: both in 1987 for the première and in 2010 for the revival). 

The 10 plays aren’t strictly connected like, say, Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests or Richard Nelson’s Apple Family Plays, but some characters or their descendents appear in more than one; Seven Guitars, set in 1948, and King Hedley II, set in 1985, are the only two plays that are specifically linked.  Nonetheless, Wilson’s plays have “many storytelling elements in common,” according to Erik Piepenburg, senior staff editor on the New York Times:

[T]they almost all took place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the playwright’s hometown; they bracingly examined issues of racism, friendship, romance and memory; the shadow of slavery was ever-present, if sparingly depicted; and they were also vibrantly distinct in their settings, ambitions and theatrical destinations.

Remarkably, Wilson creates the world of all this life in microcosmic places: the backyard of a Hill District house, a living room, the musicians’ band room of a recording studio,  a luncheonette, a car-service station. 

Regular taxi cabs won’t travel to the Pittsburgh Hill District of the 1970s, and so the residents turn to jitneys—unofficial, unlicensed taxi cabs (which we know as “gypsy cabs” in New York City)—that operate in the community.  Jitney, set in 1977 during a period of “urban renewal” in Pittsburgh, depicts the lives of the car-service drivers at the run-down jitney station, complete with junk cars outside, owned by Becker (John Douglas Thompson) as the city shuts down businesses and tears down whole blocks, including the car-service dispatch office, to make way for new buildings.  There are five jitney drivers struggling to survive out of Becker’s station: the boss, Youngblood (André Holland, who gives a highly praised performance in the current film Moonlight), Turnbo (Michael Potts), Fielding (Anthony Chisholm, a veteran of the 2000 Second Stage production), and Doub (Keith Randolph Smith).  The impending gentrification will put all of them, as well as many of their neighboring business-owners and their employees, out of work.

Youngblood, a veteran of Vietnam, and his girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson), have a two-year-old son named Jesse.  In the past, Youngblood—the name almost feels too on-the-nose, but it seems that this was a nickname the playwright himself acquired in his youth—has cheated on Rena, and now Rena thinks Youngblood is again being unfaithful—this time with her sister, because he disappears at times during the day and night, and also because, without explanation, he’s been taking the money they were saving for food.  Finally, when Rena confronts him angrily, he reveals that he’s been going around with Rena’s sister to shop for a new house for himself, Rena, and Jesse.  Rena, however, remains angry at Youngblood because he bought the house without getting her approval.

Becker’s son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), is released from prison, where he’s been incarcerated 20 years for murdering his girlfriend, who’d falsely claimed that he’d raped her.  (Just to put this in fuller context: the woman was white and her father wouldn’t have tolerated the relationship.  Let’s also recall that this would have been in the mid-’50s, about the time that Mildred and Richard Loving were arrested in Virginia for miscegenation and 10 years before Loving v. Virginia.)  When he shows up at the jitney dispatch office, he finds that his father, who never visited him in prison, is deeply disappointed not just that his son is a murderer, but that Booster doesn’t see what he did as wrong.  He and his father argue, and his father turns his back on him and walks out.  

Turnbo is older than the other drivers and is aggravated by the behavior of younger folks, especially  hotheaded Youngblood, whom Turnbo—who keeps a pistol in his car—delights in antagonizing.  Fielding, who used to be a tailor (he made suits for Billy Ekstine and Count Basie), is a drunk unsuccessfully fighting against his urge to swig from the pint he always has in his pocket—even though Becker has threatened to fire him if he continues.  Doub, the man of reason and wisdom, is a Korean War vet—the former warrior who keeps the peace.  When he gets tired of hearing his fellow drivers blame the white man for all their bad fortunes, he instructs them, “That white man ain’t paying you no mind. . . .  Hell, they don’t even know you alive.”

Under Becker’s leadership, the drivers and the other business-owners in the neighborhood decide to organize in the face of the threatened demolition.  They plan to stay put and defy the evictors; Becker calls a meeting for the evening.  But he’s been called to the mill where he used to work to help fill in when they came up short-handed.  When an accident at the mill kills him (off stage, between scenes), the drivers all assemble at the station to mourn their friend and employer, and Booster, who hadn’t heard the news, shows up looking for his father.  After the funeral, they all return to the station as if they didn’t know where else to go, and Booster instinctively answers the ringing phone: “Car service!” he says—as if he were taking over where his father left off.

MTC’s production of Jitney is terrific.  It’s August Wilson’s first play in the cycle (and his fourth script overall), so it’s a tyro effort and it shows all his faults very clearly—a diffuse plot that meanders and never congeals; scenes and moments that, while wonderful little vignettes, are digressions; characters that don’t really become part of the ensemble.  It’s also 2½ hours long.  The poetry of his dialogue isn’t fully developed yet, so the language doesn’t quite soar the way it does in later plays in the decalogue.  (It’s still pretty damn “actable.”)  But the characters are magnificent portraits, each distinct and fully drawn.  (Brantley of the Times noted of the characters that “it is remarkable how much we learn about each of them within two and a half hours.”)  Aaron Frankel, one of my acting teachers, would call them “juicy” roles—the kind actors really love to play.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis above, there really isn’t a plot in Jitney.  The events of the play are beads, and the string, as tenuous as it is, is the coming demolishment of the block of buildings that includes the cab station, reminiscent of Madame Ranevskaya’s cherry trees in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.  When Booster comes into the station to reunite with Becker at the end of act one, it looks as if a narrative is about to be initiated, but when act two begins, it’s clear that was a false impression.  Even the proposed action to fight the demolition and impending gentrification peters out as a through-line since it comes so near the end of the play and then Becker, the motivating force for the demonstration, dies precipitously.  Maybe Booster, who signals he’s ready to assume his father’s mantle when he answers the dispatch office’s pay phone, will take up this fight—but we don’t know that and the play ends long before Booster or anybody else can be anointed Becker’s successor.  So we’re left with a string of pearls, lustrous and intriguing though they are, vibrant with Wilson’s depiction of life in the Hill District that does recall a series of Bearden collages brought to life, but they’re snapshots, not stories.

The characters, too, are tenuously held together.  They’re connected, aside from their common residence in the Hill District, by their association with the jitney service and, in the physical sense, their attachment to the station, which in David Gallo’s set is a sort of island of life isolated from the outside world which is only glimpsed through sooty widows and the quickly opened door as someone enters or leaves.  (The backdrop is composed of blown-up photos, some historical and some taken by the designer, to create a collage of Hill District buildings, inspired by Romare Bearden.  Gallo, who also designed the 2000 Off-Broadway production of Jitney, developed his concept of the set from conversations then with Wilson, in which the two “spent a lot of time talking about what this place is, and what it was.”)  Not only is the streetscape outside the station barely visible, as if seen through etched glass, there’s no life going on out there except the occasional arrival or departure of one of the characters from the station.  Within the station, though, the life of the play is so magnificently limned, so palpably drawn, that it brings the theatrical portrait to life for a nearly sublime two hours and thirty minutes that never lags.

The characters who aren’t drivers are least tied to the action, particularly Shealy (Harvy Blanks, who’s played in all 10 of Wilson’s cycle plays), the numbers runner who uses the dispatch office’s phone to take bets, and Booster, whose significance to the play is telegraphed but never develops.  Shealy’s appearances seem to do little more than affirm that folks in the Hill District play the numbers and Booster exists as a flesh-and-blood character pretty much only so he can pick up the phone at the end of the play; otherwise both characters could be implied by dialogue.  If Wilson weren’t such a fabulous creator of characters for the stage (meaning, for actors to inhabit), they’d be throw-aways.  They are, however, like the other denizens of the Hill District, of part of that Beardenian view of the blues-infused world Wilson saw.  The acting in Santiago-Hudson’s Jitney is so good that there needs to be a “best ensemble” Tony for this cast.  (The Obies have one and the Drama Desks have one as a special award; the Screen Actors Guild Awards also have ensemble categories for both film and TV.  The Tonys don’t.)

There’s no star role in Jitney, a dominant figure like Troy Maxson in Fences.  The closest Jitney comes to such a unifying character is John Douglas Thompson’s Becker, who holds the ensemble together not just because he employs most of them, but because he, alone, has some kind of relationship—sometimes tenuous, granted—with each of the others.  (Diana and I saw Thompson, who has a reputation as a top-flight classical actor, as Thorwald Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Captain Adolf in Strindberg’s The Father at Theatre for a New Audience last June.  My report, “TFANA’s Scandinavian Rep,” was posted on 13 June 2016.)  Though Becker runs the car service according to specific rules and policies he’s laid down for the drivers, Thompson plays him as something of a soft touch—he can be gotten ’round.  Except, it seems, by his ex-con son, for whom Becker shows no sympathy—as far as we can know, since Becker dies before much can change in that relationship. 

Two other roles stand out in the Jitney ensemble, Doub, played by  Keith Randolph Smith, and Michael Potts’s Turnbo.  It’s not so much the quality of Smith’s and Potts’s performances that make these characters salient here—all the actors do equally terrific turns—but the prominence of their characters.  Thompson is the man of compassion, as compared to Doub as the man of reason, but sterner than Thompson’s Becker.  Still Smith, a big man who looks like he could crush any of the rest of the men without a lot of effort, gives the air of a giant who’s not so much gentle as one who very carefully picks his fights.  Potts, a much less likeable person as Turnbo, behaves like a man who just can’t help sticking his nose in other people’s affairs.  (Turnbo provokes Youngblood until the younger driver turns on him in rage and then Turnbo runs to grab the gun he keeps in his car.  Turnbo’s also the one who informs Rena that her sister’s been riding around in her boyfriend’s car, deliberately implying that Youngblood’s being unfaithful again.)  “I just talk what I know,” he insists, and Potts made me believe Turnbo believes it.  I should also make mention of the strong, passionate connections actors Thompson and Dirden, Potts and Holland, and Holland and Patterson create between their characters.

For the rest, Wilson, Santiago-Hudson, and the actors give each character a serious flaw—short-tempered Youngblood, alcoholic Fielding, hard-hearted Rena—but imbue them all with such sympathy and even warmth that I rooted for each of them to come through the deprivations being visited on Jimmy Carter-era Pittsburgh.  The actors never let me feel any of them was beyond hope, not even unrepentant Booster, who may have come around in the end to realize what he’d done.  As Ben Brantley wrote in his New York Times review, the 2017 Broadway première of this 1979 play now seems to be “not only saying that black lives matter; but also that black life matters.”  In large part, that Trump-era resonance is due to Santiago-Hudson’s directing and the cast’s performances.

Santiago-Hudson, a dab hand at Wilson’s work now (as an actor—Seven Guitars, Gem of the Ocean, How I Learned What I Learned—and director—Seven Guitars, The Piano Lesson—and even a little as a writer: a playwright in his own right, he’s been working on the screenplay for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in actor-director-producer Denzel Washington’s plan to adapt all 10 of the cycle plays for HBO following the success of Fences, released last year), did a terrific job staging this Jitney and David Gallo’s set, lit by Jane Cox, is a beautiful jumble of street junk and cast-offs.  (Scott Laule is the show’s properties supervisor.)  Starting with a superb cast of actors, Santiago-Hudson tuned them into an integrated jazz-like ensemble so interwoven, each character and actor riffing on his or her own theme, that none of Wilson’s dramaturgical deficiencies has a lasting effect.  Like Bearden’s collages, made up of bits cut from diverse sources and fused with the artist’s own additions, a viewer can step back and just let the whole experience flow.  Santiago-Hudson understands this dynamic and mostly keeps out of the way enough to let the actors and Wilson’s writing carry the play. 

The physical production is of the same vein.  In Gallo’s cluttered storefront, looking like a squatter’s nest of salvaged odds and ends, the outside world only intrudes in small bursts: the constantly ringing telephone—almost another character in the play—bringing in Hill District residents in need of a ride; noises and sounds (created by Darron L. West) from the street; the hazy view through the station’s windows of the rest of the block; the incursions now and then by outsiders to the car service like Shealy, Rena, and Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), a neighborhood doorman who uses the jitneys frequently; and the conversations of the drivers about goings-on and people in the neighborhood.  This corner of the universe is enhanced beautifully by the jazz-colored music composed by Bill Sims, Jr., the period-perfect costumes (in all their 1970s kitchiness) of Toni-Leslie James, and the hair and make-up styles of Robert-Charles Vallance.  Cox’s lighting scheme not only evokes the time of day, but the designer alternately illuminates corners of the room and hides them in shadows.  (Some reviewers complained about an expressionistic effect Cox uses at the end as inconsistent with the tone of Santiago-Hudson’s production, but it went by me so fast, I didn’t even catch it so it couldn’t have been that intrusive.)

On the basis of 51 published reviews, Show-Score gave MTC’s Jitney an average rating of 87 (including some out-of-town sources) with 98% of the notices positive, 2% mixed, and none negative.  Show-Score’s tally included 11 95’s (including the New York Times), the highest rating, and 15 90’s; the lowest score was 65, the sole mixed notice.  My survey will comprise 32 outlets, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the hometown paper of the Hill District.

“Conversation sings and swings, bends and bounces and hits heaven smack in the clouds,” wrote Brantley in his Times review of Jitney, which he dubbed a “glorious new production” at MTC.  Brantley added, “In Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s vital revival . . ., words take on the shimmer of molten-gold notes from the trumpets of Louis and Miles.”  The Timesman fairly raved about the show: “How sweet the sound.  And how sorrowful and jubilant, as life in a storefront taxi company . . . comes to feel like a free-form urban concerto, shaped by the quick-witted, improvisatory spirit that makes jazz soar.”  (No wonder the notice scored a 95!)  Linking the play’s Broadway opening (the evening before the inauguration) to the political atmosphere of the new Trump administration and linking Wilson’s dramaturgy to “another great American dramatist, Arthur Miller,” the Times reviewer praised the “impeccably tuned ensemble” and singled out  John Douglas Thompson for special notice, and Brantley remarked that Gallo’s set “exudes an aura of both contingency and vibrancy.”  (The Times published a fascinating article, “Picturing Pittsburgh, Iron City Beer Included” by Erik Piepenburg, that discusses in detail Gallo’s stage design for Jitney.  It ran in the print edition on 12 February in the “Arts & Leisure” section and is on the Times website at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/09/theater/jitney-august-wilson-pittsburgh-set-design-david-gallo.html.  Both versions are illustrated with photos of details of the set.  ROTters who are interested in—or even just curious about—scenic design should take a look.) 

In the Wall Street Journal, Edward Rothstein said of the play: “Everything feels thoroughly authentic . . . .  Wilson’s play . . . is so disciplined, so full of distinctive voices with their own pungent passions and fears, and so meticulously brought to life by a taut ensemble feelingly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson that we fully accept this world as it is given to us . . . (with excellent scenic design by David Gallo).”  Rothstein affirmed, as I expect Wilson intended, that theatergoers don’t just see a performance: “We are eavesdropping; we are witnessing.”  Calling the play a “vibrant group portrait,” Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News declared that Jitney “delivers a gripping ride.”  Dziemianowicz dubbed Santiago-Hudson’s production “atmospheric” and characterized the cast as a “fine-tuned ensemble.”

In amNew York, Matt Windman labeled MTC’s Jitney “a focused and penetrating production . . . featuring an outstanding ensemble cast” who “excel at delivering Wilson’s colloquial but lyrical language.  Windman observed that the play provides “bits and pieces of plot, . . . but ‘Jitney’ functions primarily as a detailed study of the characters and their rough environment.”  Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday called MTC’s Jitney a “[l]oving, authoritative Broadway premiere” in her “Bottom Line” and went on to characterize the play as a “rich, chatty, eerily mature work” in “a meticulously cast” production.  In the U.S. edition of The Guardian, Alexis Soloski pronounced that Jitney “is that very rare thing—a play that ought to be longer.”  Even at 2½ hours, Soloski explained, “the immersion in these characters and their world is so closely woven and complete that when the final line peals out, it’s hard not to wish for another act, another scene, another ride.”  The Guardian reviewer affirmed, “Much of the acting is extraordinary,” especially noting the confrontation scene between Thompson’s Becker and Dirden’s Booster, and praised Santiago-Hudson’s “fine ear for the play’s musicality.” 

“Directed with nuance by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and featuring a stellar ensemble,” asserted Patrick Maley for the Newark Star-Ledger (on nj.com) of MTC’s Jitney, “the show finds real nobility in the everyday lives of a downtrodden community . . . .”  The review-writer added, “‘Jitney’ is full of rich, flawed human characters whom Wilson treats with compassion and empathy.”  The physical design, Maley stated, made the show seem “not a museum piece, but a dynamic visit from the past” and the director “finds the soul of ‘Jitney’ and guides his team toward it with a steady hand” while “capturing the profound human drama of ‘Jitney’ with palpable grace.”  On NorthJersey.com, Robert Feldberg of the Bergen County Record warned that the 1979 Jitney script “bears the imprint of a young playwright who hadn’t fully found his voice.  There are moments of melodrama and sentimentality that seem borrowed from a common dramatic shelf.”  Still, Feldberg affirmed, it has the Wilsonian quality of “a vibrant awareness of the community he was writing about.”  Though the Record reviewer noted that Jitney is “a vivid signpost to the more significant plays that followed,” he noted that it “is not a great work,” with “story elements . . . wanting dramatically in various ways.”

Just to get the perspective of someone who lives in the milieu of Wilsoniana, I checked the notice of Christopher Rawson of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  (Apparently a paper of more neighborhood interest in the day would have been the afternoon Pittsburgh Press, pages from which appear on the set, but it stopped publishing in 1992.)  Rawson called the Broadway début of Jitney “a splendid, feisty production” of “one of the most robustly comic and audience-friendly of the Cycle plays.”  The MTC mounting, he said, “is a full-blooded August Wilson play, realized with professional skill and heartfelt zest.”  Rawson, who’s seen many a production of Jitney (which, remember, started in Pittsburgh with two premières), has developed some “presumptions” about casting.  Nonetheless, he praised nearly all the New York actors—some, like Dirden as Booster, he even found as good as any he’d seen in the roles.  One or two even surprised him with fresh interpretations or nuances by actors with different stage presences.  Rawson concluded that in MTC’s Jitney, “the result is a rich seam of emotion within a lively tragicomedy that speaks to us all.” 

Complaining only about “the minor drag” of  “a little too much blues music to mark the transitions,” the New Yorker reviewer for “Goings On About Town” reported that Santiago-Hudson “keeps the story moving” while he “handles the large cast . . . with verve.”  The actors, an ensemble of “uniformly good work,” all demonstrate “great skill and humor,” with particular notice for Michael Potts and André Holland.  In New York magazine, Jesse Green called Jitney “not only a worthy evening of theater but a fascinating archeological artifact,” but complained, “There is no central spine to the story, only—. . . as in some jazz—a round robin of variations.”  Santiago-Hudson, said Green, tries to integrate the pieces “but is limited by the patchwork text.”  The man from New York concluded, “If in Jitney we see the marks of Wilson’s ambition but not yet the payoff, that only makes it more valuable.  Jitney was the way he got there.”  The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold gave a lengthy and detailed analysis of Wilson’s play and his dramaturgy, then acknowledged that director Santiago-Hudson staged the MTC revival so that the “depth and density comes out vividly” and “[e]very role is fulfilled handsomely and inventively.”  The Voice review-writer concluded, “Far better than following the rules of playwriting, Jitney follows the unruly, unpredictable, inexplicable patterns of life.”

In Time Out New York, David Cote compared Jitney, “a soul-sustaining, symphonic piece,” to the cars the characters drive and decided it “is built to last and moves like a dream.”  Santiago-Hudson “steers a powerhouse cast through” performances that are a “deliverance for audiences hungry for soaring language and tough truths.”  The man from TONY concluded that MTC’s Jitney is “a thrilling journey.”  Maya Stanton of Entertainment Weekly dubbed Jitney an “intelligent, thought-provoking piece” and “an emotionally bruising gem of a play” that is “[b]y turns hilarious and devastating.”  Stanton further reported, “The talented cast soars under the confident direction of Tony-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson,” who “offers a straightforward interpretation of the material.”  The EW reviewer ends by stating, “From the stellar performances to the sharp script, Jitney is a substantial piece, and a breath of fresh air to boot.” 

Marilyn Stasio characterized MTC’s production as a “pitch-perfect revival” with a “fine cast” in Variety.  The review-writer’s take on the Broadway Jitney was that director Santiago-Hudson “dances to the rhythms of ensemble directing, which assures that these actors live for and through their characters.”  David Rooney’s “Bottom Line” on the play in the Hollywood Reporter was: “A bustling microcosm of boundless scope and texture.”  Labeling it “superb” and “gorgeous,” the HR review-writer declared the production is “shaped with imperceptible skill into a hypnotic blues symphony” conducted with “fluidity.”  Of the cast, Rooney wrote, “There’s not an actor on the stage who doesn’t thoroughly inhabit his or her flavorful character,” and he singled out several for special mention. 

In the cyber press, Steven Suskin declared of MTC’s Jitney in the first of two Huffington Post reviews, “Given that . . . director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has filled his cast with grand performers giving grand performances, theatergoers can head to the Samuel Friedman prepared to be entranced and entertained.”  With praise for the cast, especially Thompson and Dirden, the HP reviewer reported, “Santiago-Hudson helps his cast . . . bring out the richness in the characters.”  Suskin characterized the revival as an “excellent production of an intriguing play, overflowing with that incomparable language of the master.”   He found, however, that “the script itself, as rich as it is in performance, is not quite an American classic and not quite up to the other nine plays. Jitney,” he explained, “is built in fits and starts.”  Suskin concluded, though: “That said, the cast and the production make this Jitney a must-see for those who appreciate the voice of August Wilson.”  In Huffington Post’s second notice, Regina Weinreich also pronounced the show “a must-see,” especially given Santiago-Hudson’s “superb direction.”  In her last comment, Weinreich admonished, “By play’s end, with the wrecking ball of gentrification looming large over this fine-tuned ensemble, you are no more ready to leave the station than Jitney’s drivers are. RRRRring!  It must go on.” 

Elyse Sommer congratulated MTC on CurtainUp for “giving Jitney the production it deserves,” in a “well-paced, sensitive” mounting with the “top to bottom excellence of this ensemble.”  Sommer spotlighted the work of designers Gallo and James and composer Sims.  The CU reviewer concluded that the evening comes “together for . . . an uplifting and bracing moment.”  On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell described the MTC production as “superbly acted and directed,” reporting that Santiago-Hudson “makes the play as lively and funny as it should be.”  Each of the cast members gets due praise from Mandell, as do the contributions of scenarist Gallo, costumer James, and composer Sims.  The New York Theater reviewer concluded that “for the moment at least, ‘Jitney’ feels not just rewarding, but necessary.”

Jitney “has a rougher, more contrived quality than later works . . .,”  asserted Zachary Stewart on TheaterMania, “but it crackles with the energy of a writer eager to wrestle with difficult questions.”  The TM review-writer continued: “The result is a deeply satisfying drama that leaves us grappling with these issues as they pertain to the present day.”  Calling the “excellent” production, “directed with loving attention to detail,” a “stellar revival,” Stewart noted that “great performances outnumber mediocre ones,” though he is unenthusiastic about “miscast” Dirden as Booster.  The cyber reviewer praised the rest of the cast as well as James’s costumes, Cox’s lighting, Sims’s music, and Gallo’s set, and summed up by stating that “Jitney tells [Wilson’s African-American] story beautifully in two and a half hours.  Samuel L. Leiter, blogging on Theatre’s Leiter Side, dubbed Santiago-Hudson’s staging of the play “revved-up,” comparing it to “a boxing ring for champion actors” who engage here in “a slugfest of performance give and take” under the director’s “coaching.”  He warned, however, that “there’s so much high-octane acting one wishes the actors could now and then step on the brakes.”  Leiter offered praise for Gallo’s set, James’s costumes, Cox’s lighting, and West’s sound design, and in the end, he quipped, “There may be no jitneys in New York but there are plenty of other ways to get to the MTC.  It’ll be well worth the ride.”

Michele Willens, calling the direction and the ensemble acting in Jitney “pitch perfect” on Theatre Reviews Limited, confessed that she “thoroughly enjoyed spending two and a half hours with this working-class gang, so touchingly and honestly just trying to make a living.”  The TRL reviewer concluded, “This is Pittsburgh poetry, August Wilson style, and it is very fine indeed.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale reported that Santiago-Hudson “delivers a superb production filled with funk, grit, humor and some positively thrilling acting.”  Dale summed up by asserting, “While Jitney’s impact may not reach the magnitude of Wilson’s zenith, . . . this compelling production is continually engaging and thick with humor and emotion.”

Matthew Murray wrote on Talkin’ Broadway of the production that the characters

form a magnetic bond you can feel emanating from the stage, and, under the capable direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, have the properly melodic way with Wilson’s epically musical downscale dialogue, which bestows an added respectability and sense of size to the street patois so many of these people speak. 

Murray complained, however, about “the externals”:

David Gallo’s set does not sit comfortably in the space, and has a too-sweeping look that mutes some of the sense of claustrophobic dread. (The costumes by Toni-Leslie James, the original music by Bill Sims Jr., and the sound design by Darron L. West more accurately capture the mood.) And though Santiago-Hudson scarcely falters in his work with the actors, his staging of the scene transitions and one critical second-act moment come across as too self-involved, more about the unexpected effects of Jane Cox’s lights (which are otherwise strong) than giving these moments the stark clarity they really require.

On Theater Scene, Victor Gluck dubbed MTC’s Jitney “a magnificent revival” that, in the current environment, “is timely once again.”  Gluck asserted, “a better staging could not be imagined of this involving and engrossing play,” for which Santiago-Hudson has assembled a “true ensemble.”  The TS reviewer paid compliments to the designs of Gallo and James, and the music of Sims.  He compared the current production with its 2000 Off-Broadway predecessor, which “made Jitney seem like a series of vignettes, bits and pieces, that didn’t actually cohere.”  Director Santiago-Hudson makes it “a great American story of men struggling to make ends meet and live their disparate lives side by side.”  Gluck concluded, “Not only is the play absorbing, it is both wise and compassionate.”  The review-writer closed by admonishing that “this is a play that must be seen.”

Calling the Broadway début of Jitney a “sterling revival,” Mich[a]el Bracken reported on Theater Pizzazz that Santiago-Hudson “capitalizes on [the] flow [of the natural comings and goings], ensuring smooth and seamless transitions.”  The director has assembled a “remarkable ensemble cast “ among whom “[n]o one stands out because they’re all outstanding.  They play off each other beautifully.”  Though Bracken noted the long journey Jitney took to get to Broadway, he closed by asserting, “This splendid production gives it the wholehearted welcome it deserves.”  On NY Theatre Guide (not to be confused with New York Theatre Guide below), Jeff Myhre declared, “Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs my choice for best play of the year.”  Wilson’s “words allow mediocre actors to give good performances, and good actors to give great ones. In this production, we get a glimpse of what lies beyond great, and it is a gift to the audience, the cast, and the crew.”  He included praise not only for Gallo’s set, Cox’s lighting, James’s costumes, West’s soundscape, and Sims’s music, but also Robert-Charles Vallance’s make-up and hair and Thomas Schall’s fight choreography.  The NY Theatre Guide review-writer concluded, “This is theatre at its most serious and at its most useful.” 

On Front Row Center, Show-Score’s only low (mixed) rating at 65, Tulis McCall (who also posted on New York Theatre Guide) commented, “Sometimes I think of August Wilson as a composer.  The text of his plays comes through as music.”   She then asserted, “Jitney has moments that are transcendent.”  McCall, however, caviled that the pay was “a bit disjoint[ed] on the one hand and predictable on the other” and held “no real surprises for me.”  The FRC reviewer, though, thought she was in a minority because the audience around her “was vocal in their response”: “It was as if the music of the piece swept off the stage and grabbed them up.”

On the air, declaring the Century Cycle “a masterpiece,” Jennifer Vanasco said on WNYC, an outlet of National Public Radio in New York City, that after its many revisions, Jitney is “now close to perfect.”  The radio reviewer asserted that “as directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is a magnificent production, one of the best shows to be staged this year,” reporting, “The ensemble conveys authenticity and a sparkling vibrancy.”  Venasco concluded, “The drivers in Jitney have a deep respect for one another and we have a deep respect for them.  To generate this kind of empathy is art’s highest purpose.”   Roma Torre of NY1, the news channel of the Spectrum cable system (formerly Time Warner Cable), affirmed that Jitney “speaks with an eloquence that transcends time and place.”  The characters are “portrayed by an excellent ensemble” and director Santiago-Hudson “recognizes, more than almost anyone else, the universal themes in Wilson’s plays that sing to us all.”  At WNBC, the New York City outlet of the TV network, Robert Kahn characterized Broadway’s Jitney as “an artful and melodic staging” by Santiago-Hudson and praised each member of the cast.  He explained, “The MTC’s ensemble does a glorious job bringing home [the play’s] message.”   
                                                                                                  
*  *  *  *
[The ten plays in August Wilson’s Century Cycle, in the order of their setting, are:
·   1904 – Gem of the Ocean (premièred 2003, Goodman Theatre, Chicago; Broadway 2004)
·   1911 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986, Yale Rep, New Haven, CT; 1988; Broadway revival, 2009, Lincoln Center Theater)
·   1927 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984, Yale; 1984; Broadway revival, 2003)
·   1936 – The Piano Lesson (1987, Yale; 1990; Drama Desk Award, Pulitzer Prize; Lucille Lortel Award [Revival], 2013)
·   1948 – Seven Guitars (1995, Goodman; 1996’; Pulitzer nomination)
·   1957 – Fences (1985, Yale; 1987; Broadway revival, 2010’ Tony, Drama Desk, Pulitzer; Tony [Revival], Drama Desk [Revival])
·   1969 – Two Trains Running (1990, Yale; 1992; Lucille Lortel [Revival],2007)
·   1977 – Jitney (1982, Allegheny Rep, Pittsburgh/1996, Pittsburgh Public Theater; 2017)
·   1985 – King Hedley II (1999, Pittsburgh Public; 2001; Pulitzer nomination)
·   1997 – Radio Golf (2005, Yale; 2007)

[In addition to this production of Jitney, I saw Fences on Broadway (with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice, directed by Lloyd Richards; all won Tonys, as did the play) in July 1987 (I haven’t seen the movie yet), Two Trains (one of only two plays in the cycle I’ve seen twice on stage) on Broadway (with Larry Fishburne, who won a Tony, and Roscoe Lee Browne, directed by Lloyd Richards) in May 1992 and at the Signature Theatre Company in December 2006, Seven Guitars (the other double-tap) on Broadway (with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony, Keith David, and Viola Davis, directed by Richards) in May 1996 and at Signature (with Lance Reddick, directed by Santiago-Hudson) in September 2006, Joe Turner by the New Federal Theatre at the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in late fall, 1996, Ma Rainey at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage in late fall, 2002, Gem at Arena in February 2007, King Hedley at Signature in March 2007, and Piano Lesson at Signature (directed by Santiago-Hudson) in December 2012 (and on television with Charles Dutton and Alfre Woodard and directed by Lloyd Richards in February 1995).  I also saw Santiago-Hudson perform How I Learned What I Learned at Signature in December 2013.  (I’ve posted reports on ROT of Piano Lesson on 14 December 2012 and How I Learned on 20 December 2014.  Earlier Wilson performances—Seven Guitars, Two Trains, Gem, and King Hedleypredated this blog, but I’ll consider posting the archival reports at some near-future date.  Unfortunately, there are no write-ups of Fences, 1992 Two Trains, 1996 Seven Guitars, Joe Turner, or Ma Rainey.)]

1 comment:

  1. On Tuesday, 2 May 2017, the American Theatre Wing announced the 2017 Tony nominations. 'Jitney' received six: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role (John Douglas Thompson), Best Scenic Design of a Play (David Gallo), Best Costume Design of a Play (Toni-Leslie James), Best Lighting Design of a Play (Jane Cox), and Best Direction of a Play (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). The 71st Annual Tony Awards ceremony will be on Sunday, 11 June.

    ~Rick

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