Stage & Theatre

An August Beginning: Jitney at The Samuel J. Freidman Theatre

Last night, the New York theatre community welcomed the first (and ironically, the last) of August Wilson's plays to Broadway. Jitney, one of Wilson's 10 plays sharing a universal, yet intimate tale of African-American life throughout the 20th century, was the first chapter in this non-linear story of a community far more multi-faceted than most are willing to credit. With this iteration, Wilson unknowingly sets the tone for the legacy that will one day earn him a venue on the Great White Way bearing his name and reputation for excellence.

I wasn't lucky enough to enjoy the opening night festivities for this marvel with all of its celebrity fanfare, but I was blessed enough to be a part of a preview audience earlier this month. (Thank you, TodayTix!) So venturing out on a brisk Wednesday evening in January, I joined 400+ patrons of the arts and watched Jitney come to life on a Broadway stage.

Jitney tells the story of a small band of bootleg cab drivers in 1977 Pittsburgh. With an ensemble cast of ne'er-do-wells, hope-to-do-wells and know-all-too-wells, Wilson gives us a cavalcade of familiars that make us feel less like a fly on the wall and more like a member of the pool waiting for the next call to come in.

From Becker, the no-nonsense manager of the operation, to Youngblood, the aspiring homeowner with a young family to provide for, we see a community within a community come to life on the Manhattan Theatre Club stage. And although the tale takes place 40 years in the past, it is a subtle reminder of how little has changed today.

The true standout of this motley microcosm isn't the jitney setup or the authentic '70s decor, wardrobe and dialogue, but the heart of the men (and woman) trying to do their best in a world that's less than ... the best. We open on the characters of Shealy, a local bookie running numbers out of the jitney office (much to the owner's chagrin), Youngblood, and Turnbo, the house gossip extraordinaire who's convinced that his efforts to know everybody's business is a unique brand of public service.

Along the way, we also get to equally delight and despair in the stories shared by Doub, the most reasonable and level-headed member of the team, and Fielding, a character we've all met in our lifetime, whose addiction to alcohol should not result in a lack of respect for his wisdom.

Cast of Jitney

Wilson supplements our players with Rena, our only female cast member, who endures the common stresses of being a working mother raising a young son and a grown boyfriend. And last, but certainly not least, just before the end of the unusually long first act, we're introduced to a man whose reputation precedes him, and the source of our jitney enterprising owner's pain and distress.

Although the set is static and the action is more cerebral than dynamic, Jitney never stands still. At times, you find yourself feeling like a voyeur in the best reality show ever scripted. At other times, you want to interject and be the voice of calm and reason. Both linear and complex, Jitney relies on the audience to accept the characters at their word, even if the other players insist otherwise. You want to believe that Turnbo genuinely feels that Youngblood is unworthy of Rena, and that's why he tells her about Youngblood’s late night rides with her sister. You want to believe that Fielding intends to never drink around the company office again. And you want to believe Becker when he tells his son that he's not his father anymore in a fit of anger.

But what we really see, and it's played to perfection by this amazing cast of theater veterans, is a middle-aged man jealous of a younger man's life and the people he shares it with, an addict trapped in the denial that his lady love and his best years are gone, and a father who passed on his crippling sense of pride to his son and refuses to own up to this flaw and the role it played in tearing his family apart. Indeed, it's always easier to recognize others' faults better than your own, and Jitney is a master class in this lesson.

Jitney cover

Indeed Jitney could be dismissed as yet another dialogue-fest if Wilson hadn't crafted such indelible characters who reflect not only a struggling community, but ourselves. We recognize Youngblood’s ambition and fire because we've too felt it a time or two. We recognize Booster's need to avoid the humiliation he witnessed his father endure at a young age and be his own man because many of us have had to sit idle watching our parents suffer at the hands of inequality. We recognize Doub's frustration of giving everything he has to this outfit only to be kept in the dark about its future, because in these unstable economic times, the world has shown us that no business will promise you tomorrow.

Like every great playwright, Wilson gives each character a flaw or three, but he remembers that our humanity is founded on flaws (real and perceived) and the need to see them not lead to our undoing. In this effort, Wilson wins us over. He makes us feel that every character's story is indeed our story.

I could praise the actors in the MTC production all day and never do them justice. But as someone who only recognized the name of the director -- the one and only Ruben Santiago-Hudson -- before walking into the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre that evening, I walked out making a point to keep my ear to the ground for any future productions featuring the talents of this cast.

It would be an understatement to say Jitney is an event worthy of its fanfare. Wilson may no longer be with us, but in a commercial theatre environment where the film adaptations and revivals seem to be multiplying exponentially, his mark on the theater world is in need of remembrance... and perhaps a source of inspiration. I'm grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a small band of patrons who were able to share in the experience of seeing Wilson's first, yet final work come to life, and I highly recommend you join us.

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