August Wilson's 1979 play comes to Broadway, completing his epic century cycle.
Jim Becker's rules are simple. The owner of a jitney cab company (think Uber for the pre-smartphone era), he wants his drivers to maintain the highest degree of professionalism: "1. No overcharging; 2. Keep car clean; 3. No drinking; 4. Be courteous; 5. Replace and clean tools." These rules stare out at us from the stage of Manhattan Theatre Club's thoughtful and heartrending production of August Wilson's Jitney, which has finally come to Broadway via the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Rules are vital to a functioning society, but Wilson is particularly interested in rules that enforce inequality.
Set in the 1977, Jitney is the first play Wilson wrote in his epic Pittsburgh Cycle, which examines African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. It is also the last to arrive on Broadway. The play has a rougher, more contrived quality than later works like Fences (which has just been turned into an acclaimed motion picture starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis), but it crackles with the energy of a writer eager to wrestle with difficult questions. The result is a deeply satisfying drama that leaves us grappling with these issues as they pertain to the present day.
Becker (the indispensable John Douglas Thompson) is the sun around which every character in the Jitney galaxy revolves. A former mill worker and paragon of the community, he used his retirement savings to open a car service for Pittsburgh's Hill District, a majority-black neighborhood that medallion cabs won't go near. His drivers include Korean War veteran Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), alcoholic tailor Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), and company busybody Turnbo (Michael Potts). Shealy (Harvy Blanks) doesn't work for Becker, but he runs his numbers game out of the staff lounge. Driver and mechanic Youngblood (André Holland) has recently returned from Vietnam and is planning on surprising his girlfriend, Rena (a sympathetic Carra Patterson), with a house. She suspects he's cheating on her with her sister. Meanwhile, everyone anxiously awaits the return of Becker's son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), who is due to be released from a twenty-year prison sentence he served after killing his white girlfriend.
As in so many Wilson plays, this father-son drama takes center stage. Booster insists that he killed the girl because she falsely accused him of raping her, certain that he would never receive a fair trial. Becker bristles at his son's macho vigilantism: "We could have fought the lie. I'd already lined up a lawyer," he proclaims his faith in the system, as if he weren't standing in an unsanctioned taxi station about to be demolished by the city for "urban renewal." Sometimes we have to create our own solutions outside of the system, but we know that Booster only made things worse by committing murder. "I did without so you could have," Becker shouts at his ungrateful failure of a son. "What I get? Tell me? I get a murderer, that's what."
While he plays the calm voice of reason with everyone else, Thompson's Becker vibrates with sublimated rage. He unleashes this festering disappointment in an explosive confrontation with Booster at the end of the first act. We cannot help but sympathize with his anger, the frustration of a man who has spent his entire life sacrificing for a child who will never appreciate it.
As Booster, Dirden states his case like a well-heeled lawyer, but his intensity is no match for that of his father. Unfortunately, Dirden is miscast in this role, appearing entirely too comfortable and hale for a man who has just been released from two decades behind bars. He's just not hungry enough, somewhat undermining the play's too-easy conclusion.
Luckily, great performances outnumber mediocre ones in this stellar revival, which has been directed with loving attention to detail by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Speaking with a pinched voice and wearing an immaculately tailored suit, Chisholm fully embodies his character and his contradictions. Holland's Youngblood exhibits a steadfast resolve under pressure from an economy that wasn't designed for him. His anger only really comes out when dealing with the nosy Turnbo. Potts relishes this role as the play's only onstage villain and we, in turn, love to hate him. But through body language that betrays his confident words, we begin to understand that his behavior is the product of deep insecurity.
Santiago-Hudson is just as considerate with the design as he is with character and relationship development: Toni-Leslie James costumes the actors in the authentic colors of the day including burnt orange and mustard. Shealy wears ostentatious high heel boots and flamboyant suits, suggesting that facilitating illegal gambling pays much better than driving cabs. Jane Cox's ultra-realistic lighting shines through the upstage windows of the taxi depot, letting us know what time of day it is. Bill Sims Jr. has composed original blues-inflected music that perfectly sets the mood for each scene. David Gallo's set appears simultaneously makeshift and lived in: A coffee table propped up by a cinder block and a soda crate sits in front of a couch held together by duct tape. This is the tidy clutter of an organization that doesn't belong in this decrepit room adorned by fading fleurs-de-lis, but thrives regardless.
Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle is all about the ways African-Americans have carved out a corner in the American dream, despite improbable odds. Jitney tells that story beautifully in two and a half hours. Even though the late playwright had yet to conceive the 10-play project when he wrote Jitney, we get the sense through this excellent production that he was onto something big.