Word Power

How August Wilson Heard Black America: The Brilliance of ‘Jitney’ on Broadway

The brilliant MTC production of Wilson’s Jitney is so good you want to stay in the company of the actors for as long as possible.

Joan Marcus

A group of African-American men sit around a grungy cab office. They are mostly drivers, but there are a few regular customers too. Then—soon to appear through its doors—there’s Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), the son of the cab firm’s owner, Becker (John Douglas Thompson). Booster just got out of jail and wants to repair his damaged relationship with his dad.

Jitney, August Wilson’s 1979 play set in the fall of 1977 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, should perhaps feel like a vintage timepiece. And sure, in the current Broadway production, characters are in era-specific duds, most outrageously in his oranges and denim-stitch, Shealy (Harvy Blanks).

But what is more convincing, piercingly so, is Wilson’s ear itself: This is the neighborhood where the playwright grew up, and everything about the kinds of men who are onstage sounds as intricately evoked as Wilson, who died in 2005, must have known it, seen it, and heard it.

That same sensitivity and depth flows in Wilson’s other plays, like Fences, recently made into a film starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, for which Davis recently won the Golden Globe for best supporting actress.

David Gallo’s scenic design for the Broadway production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is sharply realized: from the blackboard the drivers use to register their fares to the old desks and scuffed floor. There is an always ringing phone, and the old sofa where they sit to chat and argue. Outside the windows we see a parked car, and beyond that we see the outline of an inner city neighborhood.

In this beautifully acted and mounted Manhattan Theatre Club production, directed with such heart and intelligence by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the decades melt away. This is a confident, engaging piece of theater, as audibly evident in the waves of sad sighing and merry laughter of the audience I sat among.

Animosity sparks between Youngblood (André Holland) and Turnbo (Michael Potts), and Potts plays the infuriating know-it-all, always keen to lecture or offer an opinion with such a harrying perfection that every time he professed never to interfere in anyone else’s business, the empty protestation was met with much laughter from the audience.

His meddling has serious consequences for Youngblood, however, whose relationship with girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson) is already testy enough without the lies and stirring of Turnbo. But Turnbo’s malevolence has an all-too-understandable root: His frustration is based around what he sees as the fecklessness of youth.

It turns out there is a lot of frustration within these four walls. Even Fielding, whose raspy voice speaks of late, lost nights and far too much booze, finds his alcoholism catching up with him. If there is a voice of wisdom, it is Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), who is both Greek chorus and sage head when emotions careen out of control around him.

The hard punch of the piece is between Becker and Booster; the pain of their askew relationship, and the threat that it will only go more askew (as it will, and tragically so), is at times acutely painful to watch. But, for Wilson, sometimes the pain and mess of the past are too much to get beyond.

Only one woman is physically present in Jitney, although the ghosts of the other women in the men’s lives are invoked many times over—their absence in front of us is a powerful one, and tantalizing because we are really watching men, and how men relate and talk and feel around each other. Here is masculinity running the full gamut of strong to flawed to fragile.

The men’s drama and comedy, the collision of their working and private lives, is played out with an overarching threat none of them can do anything about: the impending closure of the cab office itself, as the neighborhood itself is about to undergo drastic change.

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Gentrification and displacement are the unseen forces in Jitney, threatening to dislodge the men from their comfortable base, a base that gives them both necessary wages and just as necessary company, and a sense of community.

In a Paris Review interview in 1999, Wilson said the work of playwright Ed Bullins had been where he “first discovered someone writing plays about blacks with an uncompromising honesty and creating rich and memorable characters.

“And then James Baldwin, in particular his call for a ‘profound articulation of the black tradition,’ which he defined as ‘that field of manners and rituals of intercourse that can sustain a man once he’s left his father’s house.’ I thought, Let me answer the call.”

It is strange to want to stay in a theater beyond the two or so hours one finds oneself in one. But you will do with Jitney. This is partly down to the rhythms and texture of Wilson’s writing: Quite simply, you want to listen to his words for as long as time will allow.

He manages to combine a purring engine of a plot with rich characterization and profound themes. This combination is most movingly realized in the relationship of Becker and Booster. Wilson’s achievement is to make us feel sympathetic to both father and son, and pained at their unbridgeable estrangement.

Race and racism are issues in Wilson’s work in that they are implicit to the characters’ lives. But these big themes are lived and experienced individually. They are spoken as they are found by the characters, not as theories, or as political footballs, or as theoretical abstracts.

This is race and racism as experienced by a young man struggling to make a life for himself and his family, and in all its subtle, telling, and devastating ways as the older men around him know it to be. The ties that bind the men in Jitney are in danger from large and looming social forces, but the potential for damage Wilson sketches is masterfully personal.

“I work as an artist,” Wilson said in the Paris Review interview. “All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics. Here in America whites have a particular view of blacks. I think my plays offer them a different way to look at black Americans.

“For instance, in Fences they see a garbage man, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same thingslove, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”

Wilson also achieves this aim, in bounds and with a heart-wrenching grace, in Jitney.

Jitney is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Book tickets, through March 12, at 1-800-447-7400, or here.