‘Jitney,’ in LA, Sings August Wilson’s Song of the Forgotten Man

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Jitney
Ray Anthony Thomas, Steven Anthony Jones, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph Smith and Amari Cheatom in “Jitney.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

Only 34 at the time that he wrote his first play, Jitney, August Wilson may or may not have known just how the emotion-driven syncopation of his language — haunting and lyrical, yet searingly earthbound — would transform the landscape of American drama. One wonders, too, whether Wilson could also have anticipated Jitney‘s enduring resonance, especially in the seamlessly acted revival of the play, now at the Mark Taper Forum in LA through Dec. 29. It arrives on the left coast in a replica of the 2018 Tony-winning production, directed with scintillating focus by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and it proves that this was only the beginning for the American theater’s foremost chronicler of African-American life.

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Although Jitney originally premiered in Pittsburgh (where all but one of Wilson’s plays are set), the play wouldn’t be widely seen by theatergoers until a celebrated version arrived at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage nearly two decades ago; it then played the UK’s National Theatre in 2002, where it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Play. When Jitney finally arrived on Broadway, in January 2017, it was three days before the inauguration of Donald Trump, and Wilson’s words, the innately moving might of his dialect, seemed charged with its own throbbing immediacy. Indeed, Jitney has a place of honor within Wilson’s American Century Cycle, which comprises 10 plays, each set in a different 20th century decade, and includes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Wilson’s two Pulitzer Prize winners, The Piano Lesson and Fences.

Jitney‘s Broadway premiere came at a moment when the first African-American president was exiting the national stage after two terms — and his successor was openly trafficking in white nationalist tropes. The collapsing optimism and yearning undertow that accompanied that premiere bequeathed the theater a new act of political resistance.

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At the same time, this is not to suggest that this LA revival of Jitney only benefits from an of-the-moment appreciation or from muted discernment stemming from our own distressed time. Rather, the play is less a Wilson masterwork than the embryonic development of a truly sui generis theatrical voice. Santiago-Hudson’s production, which expertly locates Wilson’s poetry in the everyday banter among the play’s vigorous denizens, satisfies in the way that well-made plays satisfy; a pitch-perfect cast also camouflages some of Jitney’s less well-structured ideas, at least in this production.

Jitney
Ray Anthony Thomas, Steven Anthony Jones, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph Smith and Amari Cheatom in “Jitney.” Photo: Joan Marcus.

Taking place in the 1970s, Jitney introduces a group of taxi drivers who face the closing of their cab (or jitney) stand due to gentrification. David Gallo’s frayed but naturalistic set is like a sacred space, an environs perfectly matched for the authentic and gritty players who populate it. Wilson’s omniscient voice, which generally looms both magically and musically over his plays, indeed earns full weight here through his scheming, dreaming characters. Jitney’s depiction of father-son relationships, and the generational and cultural fault lines that Wilson pierces with all of his characters, are not to be dismissed. At the same time, however, the play can feel overstuffed, not to mention long-winded.

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Still, Jitney insists, as does the entire Wilson canon, on the centrality of race not only to African-American life, but to American life. Wilson is peerless in depicting the psychic effects of marginalization along the lines of race and class, and, in particular, the durability of human connection as an elixir to such woes.

Which harkens us to the cast, which is worth not a few more hosannas. Excellent portrayals abound, starting with the flawless Steven Anthony Jones as Becker, the jitney stand’s passionate honcho. Trumbo, the stand’s boisterous meddler, is rendered deliciously by Ray Anthony Thomas. Amari Cheatom dazzles as Youngblood, an aspiring 20-something whose swagger is only underscored by his commitment to Nija Okoro’s terrific Rena, his girlfriend, and their child. Also at the cab stand are Fielding — a top-tier Anthony Chisholm, who played the part on Broadway — whose wizened character was a onetime tailor to famed bandleader Billy Eckstine, and, at the center of it all, Booster — the commanding Francois Battiste — who is released after 20 years in prison and a long estrangement from Becker, his father. Jitney’s dramatic tension largely revolves around Booster and Becker, and the play delivers its greatest emotional heft through their reunion.

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While Jitney relies on a multitude of voices swirling about and often crashing into each other, Wilson’s play is actually more successful as a grander thematic statement on the fate of the Black working class, a subject that is both painful and unfortunately evergreen. As one character laments, “You look up one day and all you got left is what you ain’t spent. Everyday cost you something and you don’t all the time realize it.” Jitney can be as playful and wisecracking as it is rueful; it can also feel, on more than a few occasions, like a bit of a sitcom. (The music, by the late Bill Sims Jr., offers much in the way of 1970s grooves and the wah-wah pedal, but is also used clunkily during scenic transitions, and often feels indicative in the wrong ways.) Given that so much of Wilson’s later works are characterized by fully fleshed-out characters speaking some of the theater’s most beautiful language, Jitney, as noted earlier, tends toward overlong speeches; even the painful denouement of the play is more heavy-handed than organic (no spoilers here).

Fissures along the lines of class and race are etched into America’s DNA, and Wilson’s great legacy is that much of his later work rose to the heavens in its scathing assault upon the illusions, racial and otherwise, that we tell ourselves in order to live. Wilson never needed garden-variety plotting to enliven the raw, sheer vitality of his work. The stories and the cultural forces that shape and undo his gallery of deeply American characters is how he routinely deployed a gut-punch — not only to those deeply ingrained myths, but to the often willfully blind, white theatergoers to which his Broadway shows generally played. If Jitney doesn’t leave you breathless, it nevertheless compels our attention. It augured that Wilson’s sweet, sorrowful words would linger on.