Tuesday, January 24, 2017

August Wilson's Jitney (Manhattan Theater Club)

By Harry Forbes

Splendidly acted by a superlative ensemble and finely directed by August Wilson veteran Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this revival of Wilson’s 1982 play, which takes place in the office of an unlicensed car service about to be demolished in 1977 Philadelphia’s Hill District, gets the new year off to a distinguished start.

“Jitney” is, in fact, the only one of Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays not to have been seen on Broadway, and here it is at last, courtesy of MTC which has a solid history co-producing such Wilson plays as “King Hedley II,” Seven Guitars” and “The Piano Lesson.”
I recall the original Off-Broadway production fondly, with its roster of fine performances, but the present cast doesn’t disappoint.

There’s Harvy Blanks as numbers-playing Shealy who takes bets over the office phone; gravelly-voiced Anthony Chisholm (from the Off-Broadway production) as hard-drinking ex-tailor Fielding; John Douglas Thompson as veteran manager Becker; Brandon Dirden as his estranged son Booster just released from the penitentiary after 20 years; AndrĂ© Holland as troubled Vietnam vet Youngblood; Carra Patterson as his girlfriend (and mother of his child) Rena; Michael Potts highly amusing as the ever-gossiping Turnbo; Keith Randolph Smith as sensible Korean War vet Doub; and Ray Anthony Thomas as doorman Philmore; a frequent jitney customer.

Together they form a powerful ensemble, the equal of any on or off Broadway at the moment. The versatile classical actor Thompson is especially compelling as Becker, one of his best roles, but everyone here is at the top of their game.

Wilson’s writing is extraordinary as always, poetic yet so very natural. Conversations always take an unpredictable turn. And although there’s a bittersweet quality throughout, there are some wonderfully humorous bits, such as an amusing exchange about the merits of Lena Horne versus Sarah Vaughan. These flow seamlessly amidst scenes of high drama such as the powerful and poignant reunion of Booster and Becker who, we learn, never came to see his son once in jail, and Doub dispensing pearly wisdom to fellow vet Youngblood: “It ain’t all the time what you want. Sometimes it’s what you need. Black folks always get the two confused.”

David Gallo’s extraordinarily detailed set, Toni-Leslie James’ impeccable period costumes; Jane Cox’s atmospheric lighting, Darron L West’s natural sound design are all tops. Bill Sims, Jr.’s original music score sets just the right jazzy, bluesy tone.

Santiago-Hudson knows this material well, and like a masterful orchestral conductor, leads his cast to something close to perfection.

With the beautifully realized film version of “Fences” currently on movie screens, this powerful production offers an ideal complementary experience.

(MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through March 12)