‘Jitney’ explores complexity of African-American experience

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Have you longed for a great tale, well told, that signature moment in a packed, hushed theatre which you know you will never forget? Read on. 

August Wilson’s “Jitney” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre pulses with just that compelling exactitude in the Manhattan Theatre Club production expertly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. This is the real deal, folks.

Wilson’s reach is epic and intimate, so that this tale of a car service in 1977 Pittsburgh is equal parts a folksy slice of cultural precision, a summation of key dynamics in 20th century American life, and a universal signpost of civilization’s unsteady march from father to son.

Surrounded by the detailed shambles of David Gallo’s gorgeous set, this community of drivers, sidekicks, lovers and bosses unfolds around a single turning point in Pittsburgh’s Hill District—urban renewal. The hallmarks of African-American life and struggle are rendered in all their rich complexity in the lives that intersect in this timeworn corner storefront. The production is blessed with an outstanding ensemble cast which animates Wilson’s vision in full measure.

“Jitney” travels far beyond its linear plotline. We never leave the storefront, and we move forward a mere couple of days, yet along the way, and in the context of the story, the characters bear witness to the landmarks of a generation: the hard life on the block, the shadow of Jim Crow, the lure of the hustle, the landlord’s yoke, and the lingering toll of war. Wilson is generous, so that each character has a vibrancy all its own, and one can easily imagine a half-dozen plays of equal stature arising offstage. This wealth of characters negotiates a contradictory world of striving and servitude, where inner and outward negotiations must sometimes falter over pride and honor. And, like life itself, “Jitney” can be untidy, with conflicts unsettled and dreams deferred.

But that is the territory. The characters go with what they have, and the results are spectacular. The stage brims with authenticity and conviction, whether heartfelt, anguished, petty or noble, all the troublesome dimensions of truth.   

The high point is a father-son scene played to perfection by John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden. Each man is justified, articulate, and correct, and in total conflict with the other. The stakes are the eternal wages of time, love, conscience, family, and pride. We see years of mutual hurt rise and tangle in a plea for acceptance, and we know that each man is right as they pitch battle across a cauldron of pain. You will not see a more affecting and glorious encounter anywhere on the American stage. 

The vivid portrayals extend throughout, as Harvy Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Andre Holland,  Michael Potts, and Keith Randolph Smith round out a lively gallery of regulars in this terrific production. As in much of August Wilson’s work, it is the everyday crew of men on the street who supply the texture and lifeblood for this deep journey into the common terrain of the American soul. 

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