August Wilson’s Jitney: An Eclectic Jazz Piece of Playwriting
August Wilson’s Jitney begins with a swelling of soulful jazz playing in the background as we take in the meticulously designed set of David Gallo. The characters slowly wander onto the stage for the Broadway debut of one of his first plays, setting the scene and creating a moment in time. Written in 1979, Jitney is now seen as part of a greater whole, one of the ten plays that make up the “Pittsburgh Cycle” that poetically chronicles the black experience decade by decade in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Set in a decrepit gypsy cab station (Toni-Leslie James: costumes; Jane Cox: lighting) in the fall of 1977, Jitney beautifully illustrates the hard times of the Hill District and the people of color who live and work there. It’s a stellar production showcasing the intricate and poetic artistry of Wilson’s writing. It equally rings true and authentic to the time and place, while also sounding like an eclectic jazz piece played late night in a smoke filled bar by some old time legends having a good ol’ time doing what they love.
Slowly, one by one, like soloists, we are given the opportunity to meet and get to know each and every character that comes through the door of that worn down office. It’s a microcosm of the neighborhood and the changes that are happening all around them. Storefronts housing small businesses run by old timers are being boarded up. Not because they want to leave, but because there is talk of development without any signs of it happening. Is gentrification coming to the Hill District or is it a sign of decay? The drivers and visitors in the jitney office owned by Becker (John Douglas Thompson giving us an exceptional and complex portrayal) are all working, trying to keep it together, and fighting against the future. Some are trying hard to grow, even against all the odds that feel piled up against them and some are just trying to hold on to what they have. Each have their story to tell, and even the smallest of stories are given their due at one point or another with poignancy and detail.
Singling out any of the distinct characters that Wilson has gathered together will feel like I left another fine portrait out, but just know there isn’t a false step in the lot. Andre Holland, who expanded the emotional heart of the film, “Moonlight” with his magnificent presence in the final moments, is the center of one of the larger story lines in the piece. As the determined and handsome Youngblood, he displays such a grand emotional range from the rash hot-headed young man to the romantic lover and father, who is not getting it right all the time but trying hard to do what’s right for those he loves. His scenes with the wonderful Carra Patterson as Rena, the mother of his child, are desperate and loving, fragile and true, and we ache for them to dig deep and say the truth to each other, rather than react from age-old disappointments. But that doesn’t take anything away from his explosive scenes with the gossipy Turnbo (a wonderful and hilarious Michael Potts or his touching and father/son like relationship with Becker. All shades of Youngblood speak volumes of the inner workings of this man.
Becker has his own inner battle to deal with. His son, Booster (a volatile Brandon J. Dirden) returns from a 20-year jail sentence, and desperately wants to connect again with his father, but the anger and frustration that is bottled deep down inside them both make that re-engagement complicated and explosive. Wilson doesn’t try to psychologically explain Booster’s explosiveness nor his aggression but that tendency does echo through many of these characters occupying that Hill District office. The father/son battle scene is epic in detailed history and balance, both sides explaining themselves but also defending against the pain of their shared past. It’s a master class in both structure and performance. Neither win the argument, but both lose out in the end.
On a quieter note, the alcoholic driver, Fielding (a Tony worthy performance by Anthony Chisholm) blends with perfection the unstable drunk and the deeply felt love and loss that this man feels and has felt over the last 22 years since his wife left him. He needs these people in his life, surrounding him with a family and a structure that keeps him alive. He gives us quick and intense moments of such heart felt clarity that we ache for his sadness and pain. The drivers as a unit give us the same dynamics of a family, each very singular and unique, but connected and entwined in a way that only the family truly understands.
As it turns out, Jitney is the first August Wilson play I have ever seen, I’m ashamed to admit. MTC’s production is a perfect entrance into the Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” world. The ensemble work together like a well-tuned old car. Each are given their moments to shine and resonate. They float in and out of each other’s stories, engaging and illuminating from different angles like different instruments being played by musicians that seem connected mysteriously through the air (Darron L. West: sound; Bill Sims Jr.: original music). It’s complex and masterful, and makes me want to rush out and see the film, “Fences”, which, like all of the “Pittsburgh Cycle” is located in the same neighborhood but a different time. That microcosm that Wilson has gifted with us with digs deep inside our heart. Directed excellently by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, it plays with our soul like a world class band of jazz musicians, giving all different kinds of melodies and shades of emotions, pulling it all together in the end in one miraculous performance.