Broadway Review: “Jitney” at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

Broadway Review: “Jitney” Is Better Now Than Ever at the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
By August Wilson
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Reviewed by Michele Willens

August Wilson is having a banner year—especially for someone who has been dead since 2005. The good news is that the playwright had great success while he was living (two Pulitzers among numerous other awards). He is best known for what is called the American Century cycle, one drama a decade that chronicles African American lives in the Hill district of Pittsburgh.

One of those plays, “Fences,” has been a hit twice on Broadway and now, of course, has been adapted to the screen. Its star and director, Denzel Washington, has committed to bringing all the Wilson plays from stage to screen, an admirable if daunting goal. Meanwhile, the one play in the cycle that had not hit Broadway, has arrived there.

“Jitney” was written, and takes place in, the late ‘70s and I am quite sure its author would be pleased with the new Manhattan Theatre Club production. (Incidentally, it is not playing at the August Wilson Theater but at the Samuel Friedman.) David Gallo has created a beautiful set, replete with a few cars (which could clearly use a paint job or two) seen in the distance. Like almost all Wilson plays, the action takes place in one setting: here it is the ramshackle office of a gypsy car service, located in a neighborhood that is in imminent danger of being torn down. That’s a plot point of sorts, but “Jitney” is about the people.

In this case, there are nine of them who come in and out, and pick up the constantly ringing phone, awaiting their next job. (“Car service, okay, that will be four dollars, look for a blue car and I ain’t waiting.”) These people may seem like types at first–the spiffy numbers guy, the loquacious gossip, the young and confused Vietnam Vet–but as the time goes on, they become complex and always surprising individuals.

The direction, by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, as well as his cast, are pitch perfect. I am particularly thrilled to see John Douglas Thompson in a leading role on Broadway. He’s one of the theatre world’s great classical actors, but his work has almost always been off the Great White Way. Most recently, I watched him soar in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Strindberg’s “The Father” at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. Here he portrays the manager of the taxi service, but his most heartbreaking and maddening pair of scenes include his grown son, who has just been released after two decades in prison. (“What I ain’t got is a son I can be proud of! “is one of the least hurtful things he says.)

One can’t help but think of “Fences,” which also dealt with an overbearing father and a son trying to earn back his love. I thoroughly enjoyed spending two and a half hours with this working-class gang, so touchingly and honestly just trying to make a living. (A fight over thirty cents is no joke here) Not to mention just listening to August Wilson’s unique and flavorful dialogue. (“Ain’t nothing like owning property, they might even call you for jury duty.”)

What a joy to watch these characters bicker over whether Sarah Vaughn or Lena Horne was sexier, to hear one tell of his harrowing job in the Korean War, (stacking six bodies at a time) and yet another of how the bottle ruined a job as tailor to the stars of jazz. This is Pittsburgh poetry, August Wilson style, and it is very fine indeed.