“Jitney,” Wilson’s First Play, Last to Debut on Broadway

John Douglas Thompson, Michael Potts in Jitney. Photo: Joan Marcus

There’s a TV term for something like August Wilson’s Jitney: gang comedy. Categorizing the 1979 play this way might be considered somehow derogatory, but not so: “gang comedy” accurately describes this outstanding play in a brilliant production, directed with muscular assurance by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and now having its first NYC revival at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Until this production, it was the only Wilson play not produced on Broadway (though it ran Off-Broadway for several months in 2000).

No shortage of verbal spotlights

The setting is an office on a street-level corner building in Pittsburgh’s Hill district. That’s where Wilson concentrated many of his one-play-per-decade looks at the 20th century African-American experience. Immediate kudos to David Gallo, who enlarges the set that represents the aging, perhaps doomed edifice that he designed for the first outing of Jitney. Additional thanks to Gallo for the two vintage automobiles parked on a sloping hill outside the large windows.

Wilson’s living-life-to-the-brim characters come and go, morning to night, in this jiving environment, where a gypsy cab business is conducted over a phone also used to book numbers. Everyone is dressed in duds by Toni-Leslie James that all but blare the 1977 timeframe. (It’s generally accepted that Jitney was Wilson’s first play, followed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.)

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Becker (John Douglas Thompson), the owner-operator, could be considered the leader of this striving, endangered pack of characters, whose livelihoods are endangered if the building is razed and gypsy cab business founders. He may also be the most levelheaded of them. His major character development — tangling with his son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), just released from 20 years in prison — only comes into focus towards the end of Wilson’s volatile first act. It continues — both men in conflict — into a darkening second act.

But Becker and Booster’s story isn’t the only one we follow. Throughout Jitney, every bit as much attention is accorded to the others — there’s no first among these seven beautifully, often hilariously differentiated equals. There’s Turnbo (Michael Potts) waiting to be dispatched, killing time by getting into everyone else’s business while refusing to admit that’s exactly what he’s up to.

Turnbo’s busybody activities reach a boiling point when he conflicts with 24-year-old Youngblood (André Holland), also known as Darnell, and a pistol is wielded. Several tense moments pass, and eventually there are lighter moments with his wife, Rena (Carra Patterson), who’s worried — with good reason — that her husband is cheating on her. Especially when his uppermost concern should be her and their two-year-old son.

Flamboyant in rib-tickling polyester suits, Shealy (Harvy Blanks) is a live-wire who registers numbers. Tall, shambling Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) tries Becker’s extended patience by taking prohibited nips from bottles he keeps in his inside breast pocket. Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), a hulking fellow with an even temperament, spouts some truths. Dropping by drunk or sober, Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas) completes the picaresque retinue.

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At the end of this season, when the award-givers and nominators convene, there will be a much-heated discussion of Jitney as the choice for best ensemble. It’s inevitable, for just as no character among this irresistible dramatic personae stands above another, no actor stands above his or her colleagues. Quite the opposite. It’s Wilson’s writing, of course: in committing to write a play taking place in each decade of the 20th century, he handed just about every actor at least one speech that he or she could grab and run with. Call it an aria. Or if not an aria, one part of a highly charged conversation.

In our current political climate, a timely revival.

Jitney has no shortage of these verbal spotlights. There’s Becker and Booster sizing each other up and wearing each other down, both making substantial arguments for their side of the contention. There’s Youngblood and Rena weighing the pros and cons of their marriage and his interest in her (unseen) sister. There’s Turnbo and Youngblood at pistol’s point. There’s Becker and Fielding squaring off over alcohol. There’s Youngblood and Doub debating the white man’s oppression — and Doub delivering a message that questions the value of misunderstanding the issue. Doub’s wise commentary is the lone instance in which Jitney turns bluntly political, but the issues are right up front: the gypsy cab business exists in the first place because licensed cabs won’t venture into the Hill District. In our current political climate, with debates about resurgent racism, this revival feels particularly timely.

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Another one of Wilson’s abiding themes — naturally for a playwright with a penchant for an aria — is music. He can’t veer away from it, no how: Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey; the titles of The Piano Lesson and Seven Guitars. In Jitney, the allusions are subtler. Aside from the music of the speeches and the moodily original underscoring by Bill Sims, Jr., Wilson introduces a debate about who is more beautiful, Lena Horne or Sarah Vaughan. Ella Fitzgerald is also mentioned. Fielding, who in addition to his bottle-nipping was apparently once quite fine with a sewing needle, recalls being Billy Eckstine’s favorite bespoke tailor and boasts that he once denied Count Basie a suit at Eckstine’s bidding.

Jitney opened Jan. 19 — during the five-day period that began with Martin Luther King Day and ended with the inauguration of a wildly controversial new president. It’s themes, language and messages are timeless, however.