By Tulis McCall
Sometimes I think of August Wilson as a composer. The text of his plays comes through as music. Sometimes it is not what people are saying, it is the melody they are creating with their lives. I remember a friend of mine recalled seeing James Earl Jones in Fences and saying that his performance was operatic. His lectures were oratorios.
I remember feeling that about the most recent incarnation of Fences with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and the specific moment was when she joined in his litany about standing still for 18 years and said “I have been here too.”
In the same way, Jitney has moments that are transcendent. This is the story of a car service in the Hill District of Pittsburgh – home to all of Wilson’s plays. It is 1977 and the very fine set by David Gallo and costumes by Toni-Leslie James will convince you of that fact, especially if you were alive in 1977.
Becker (John Douglas Thompson) runs the joint, and the organization appears loose to the observer until you pay attention. There is an order and a hierarchy. The one phone in the place is a public phone that takes DIMES (How I miss that sound of the coins falling into place.), and each man knows when it is his turn to answer and pick up a ride. While they are waiting they do what people do. They pass the time. With stories that chronicle their lived. The stories weave together as they come and go. Turnbo (Michael Potts) takes read when he is not up in everyone else’s business. Most recently he took a kid on a fare where he picked up a television set and took it to a pawn broker. Come to find out he stole it from his now Grandmother. What is the world coming to? Healy (Harvey Blanks) is a number man who uses the station for his office and is suffering from a broken heart. Youngblood (André Holland) is a Vietnam Vet trying to do the right thing for his woman, Rena (Carra Patterson) in a backwards kind of way. Doug (Keith Randolph Smith) is a Korean War Vet who has forced himself to center his life, but his duties among the dead have never left him.
Into all of this comes the stranger in town – a necessary plot point – in the form of Becker’s son Booster (Stephen Tyrone Williams, the understudy giving a very fine performance) who has just been released from jail after 20 years. He murdered a young white woman with whom he was having a fling. When she and he were caught she accused him of rape. Oops.
So what plays out here, because Wilson never seems to run out of plot lines, is the story of Becker and his son, Youngblood and his woman, the fact that the building is two weeks away from being torn down – and that’s just the half of it. Where I was riveted were the two major confrontations – one between Becker and Booster and the other between Youngblood and Rena. Not only were the performances spot on, but Wilson digs deep. These characters stand their ground and hook each other in over and over again. There is no right or wrong. There are only people splitting their chests open to display their hearts – even though none of them would admit it.
As to the overall piece, it felt a bit disjoint on the one hand and predictable on the other. There were no real surprises for me, although I have to admit that I was in the minority because this audience was vocal in their response to what was happening. It was as if the music of the piece swept off the stage and grabbed them up. And of course it is thrilling to see a show that is not of white people, by white people, and for white people. That alone is reason to sit up and take notice.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway debut of August Wilson’s Jitney, at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street).
WITH: Harvy Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Brandon J. Dirden, André Holland, Carra Patterson, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith, Ray Anthony Thomas and John Douglas Thompson
For more information on MTC, please visit www.ManhattanTheatreClub.com.
Tickets are available at Telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200, or by visiting The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Box Office at 261 West 47th Street. Ticket prices are $60-$140.