The house lights are still up when the first character of JITNEY saunters into view.
Even as the others enter, they remain lit.
Just when you wonder if they’re going to stay on for the entire performance, they start to dim.
What we’ll lose in wattage throughout the house will certainly be compensated by the brilliance of light and heat that will emanate from the stage. Bravo to playwright August Wilson, director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and his extraordinary cast.
This is truly ensemble acting. Two hours and twenty minutes later, when the nine performers line up for their curtain calls, Santiago-Hudson is right to have them all stay in place and offer none a solo bow. Perhaps this production will be the motivation for the Tonys to finally bestow a Best Ensemble Award.
As for Wilson, this is a case where The First Will Be Last: JITNEY was his initial foray into playwriting, even before he envisioned his ten-play cycle that would have each work comment on a specific decade of 20th century African-American life. And yet, JITNEY wound up being the last Wilson play to receive its Broadway debut. Until now, the only professional production that Manhattan saw was off-Broadway in the spring of 2000, starting a run that would last until winter of 2001.
Now JITNEY has finally moved up to the big leagues where Santiago-Hudson matches the best of Wilson’s Broadway productions. How sad that that the playwright, who died in 2005, is not around to see it.
We’re in in the black Hill District of Pittsburgh (from which Wilson hailed) in a ramshackle “Car service,” as we’re told every time anyone answers the pay phone. This is Wilson’s ‘70s play, as you might start to infer from the rotary dial and the characters pressing in a mere seven numbers to make a local call.
The one door we see center stage (in David Gallo’s appropriately lackadaisical run-down set) slams more often than one in any French farce. Four cab drivers – none of whom has an official city-sanctioned taxi license — are either leaving to meet a fare or returning from one. Their employer is Becker, not a no-nonsense boss, but a not-very-much nonsense one.
The others are visitors, two of whom won’t be particularly welcome.
It’s all talk and not all that much action, as Wilson even ignored Chekhov’s directive on the appearance of guns. Considering the high quality of the talk — ranging from genuinely hilarious to bolt-of-lightning powerful – you won’t pine for action.
Wilson knew that the best comedy comes from character, not gags. So there are very few genuine going-for-a-laugh lines, although one driver, while examining a Playboy nude, points and quips “If I get up to heaven and she ain’t there, I’m gonna ask God to send me straight to hell.”
That comes from Turnbo, who criticizes many a driver, dispenses unsolicited advice, spreads malicious gossip and probes for secrets – all the while believing he abides by his credo to “live and let live.” Where women are concerned, he’s sweet as Splenda — and just as genuine. Michael Potts has the ability to make people believe him – and that includes us in at least one instance. Such behavior does make him run the risk of getting a castor-oil-level dose of his own medicine.
Jokes do come from Shealy (the ebullient Harvy Blanks), who tells his stories with the assurance that they’ll get laughs, which they do – from him and him alone. That reaction makes us laugh, too, reiterating that Wilson had the rare ability to make his people funny without their remotely knowing it. He let their foibles do as much talking as their mouths.
As for the drama, Wilson offers a wedge between a father and son. Granted, that’s been the situation in countless plays, what with different points-of-view, generation gaps or fathers’ great expectations and their sons’ inabilities to fulfill them. JITNEY centers on the last-named, for Becker has been devastatingly disappointed by Booster. As Becker, the always wondrous John Douglas Thompson neither forgives nor forgets while Brandon J. Dirden’s Booster has forgiven himself completely without forgetting. When Booster walks back into Becker’s life, Thompson makes us see that Becker has been preparing his opening salvo for quite some time and he dispenses it with the power of a howitzer.
Objectively dispensing both sides of a story became a Wilson trademark. Remember that song that proclaimed “nobody does it better” than James Bond? That’s undoubtedly true in matters of sex, sophistication and derring-do, but NOBODY did it better than Wilson in making you side with one character when you heard his argument — only to then switch to the other person’s p-o-v when he gave his rebuttal – only to return to agreeing with the first speaker when he gave HIS rebuttal. In JITNEY, this culminates in a terrific first-act curtain, arguably the best in the entire Wilson canon.
If that isn’t enough to convince you of Wilson’s fair-mindedness, there’s a solid he-says/she-says sequence in Act Two when driver Darnell Youngblood (an earnest Andre Holland) gets an unwanted visit from his girlfriend Rena (a grounded Carra Patterson). We feel so bad for him when she doesn’t appreciate how hard he’s working to make a certain dream of hers come true … until she gives her opinions. Damn if she’s not right, too.
The double-edged rapier approach is at its most effective when Wilson dares to deal with matters of race. Just as in the current film HIDDEN FIGURES, which reveals the unappreciated and hitherto unacknowledged contributions that African-Americans have made to this country, you’ll find some of the same messages here in detailing the roadblocks that African-Americans have had in buying houses. But then a cabbie named Doub (a sound Keith Randolph Smith) delivers a potent speech on how blacks should not automatically blame all their troubles on whites. Wilson even dares to suggest that some problems that African-Americans have had have been of their own making. Some of that is displayed by Ray Anthony Thomas as Philmore, a poor little man who has lost his way – and none of the cabbies here will be able to drive him to where he needs to go.
Anthony Chisholm, with his gargled-with-razor-blades voice, portrays Fielding, a role he had 17 years ago in the off-Broadway engagement. Let’s hope that his needing to put his arm on a chair before he sits and gets up is the character’s aging, not the actor’s. Chisholm greatly amuses when telling his comrades of a dream that he’s having trouble interpreting, although we don’t. Later, how hollow he makes his voice when he says “It’s almost over.”
Never mind what. Find out for yourself – even if you have to take a cab to the Friedman Theatre.