Jitney Review- An Historic Opening

Last night a truly historic opening occurred in mid Manhattan in that the last of the ten plays that AUGUST WILSON wrote which comprise his The American Century Cycle, one for each decade of the 20th century, finally appeared on a Broadway stage years after receiving  numerous  accolades and awards. These include the 2001 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play, as well as the 2002 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play when it appeared at Britain’s National Theatre, both for the Marion McClinton staging of 2000 that had previously played in Pittsburgh, Newark, and various regional stages before coming to NYC at both Union Square and Second Stage Theaters now some seventeen years ago.


This reviewer had the privilege of witnessing three of those previous presentations that had featured the late PAUL BUTLER, as well as the very much alive, STEPHEN McKINLEY HENDERSON, who  is now  prominent in the recent film release of “FENCES”, which as a play in 1987 gave  Wilson the first of his two Pulitzer Prizes, the other coming in 1990 for “THE PIANO LESSON”.  Also seen in those past productions were the Tony Award nominated, ANTHONY CHISHOLM, and the as well, always wonderful, KEITH RANDOLPH  SMITH, both of whom, I’m happy to report ARE among the nine players in this present exceptional ensemble most ably guided by the Tony Award winning Actor/Director, REUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON.


This is the play reflecting Pittsburgh in the fall of 1977. The entire action takes place in the dilapidated Gypsy Cab station where,” the paint is peeling off the walls, and the floor is covered with linoleum that is worn through in several areas.”  Also “worn through in several areas” are a number of the unlicensed drivers of these “jitneys” who try to follow BECKER’S RULES of” 1) No overcharging, 2) Keep car clean, 3) No drinking, 4) Be courteous, 5) Replace and clean tools.”  We don’t see Becker himself,( the remarkable JOHN DOUGLAS THOMPSON) for a while, but rather get a sense of his associates trying to eek out a living making “trips” within the community and maintain some form of dignity while endeavoring to build a new life as is the case with Youngblood/Darnell, a Viet Nam veteran ( ANDRE HOLLAND) and the lovely mother of his child, Rena,( CARA PATTERSON); as well as the veterans of life such as Fielding( the superb ANTHONY CHISOLM recreating his role from years ago)who now an unapologetic  alcoholic, was once an in demand tailor for the likes of no less than Billy Ekstine and Count Basie.  Referring to the great band leader,” He tried to steal me away from Billy, but Billy was from Pittsburgh and that made us have more of a bond. Even though I must say I liked Basie cause he paid well.  But that wasn’t enough to tear me and Billy apart.”  To hear Chisholm’s raspy larynx utter these unimpeachable words with a sonority borne of gravel and honey, is akin to hearing the aforesaid  Ekstine  master a ballad such as “The Very Thought Of You”, or the Kansas City Swing Master punch out “ April In Paris”.


HARVEY BLANKS  portrays  Shealy, who hustles the numbers game to the drivers and their customers with an authenticity which rivals the perfection of the garbs he wears designed by Toni-Leslie James.


KEITH RANDOLPH SMITH ( Doub), whom I saw deliver  the character of Becker’s son, Booster, years ago, now provides the Korean War veteran, Doub  with a generosity as well as authority that remains riveting  while appearing to be effortless. This production’s Booster is played by BRANDON J. DIRDEN. The  story around him as a recently released from prison murderer visiting Becker when it’s announced that the Jitney Service Station is due to be boarded up by the city as a condemned property, is the focal point of the tale as it’s revealed that proprietor, Becker ,never once visited his son in prison during Booster’s 20 year sentence out of unfathomable disappointment in the promise of his talented son and grief in the death of Booster’s mother in believing that her son was imminently to be electrocuted by the state of Pennsylvania for killing his former rich, white girl lover who’d  unforgivably betrayed him. Dirden  gets to have the most spirited argument with Thomas’ Becker at the end of the first act that is as tragic and credible as anything conjured by the likes of O’Neill, Miller, Williams, or life itself.


Rounding out this outstanding cry of players are MICHAEL POTTS giving a stunning turn as the ultimate busy-body, Turnbo. That is the role I reveled in McKinley Henderson’s impeccable performance years ago as a rather laggard insinuator of disturbing danger, yet here, under Santiago-Hudson’s shrewd guidance, Potts provides an almost manic invader of everyone’s lives   that is no less persuasive than the mastery of Henderson’s, thus, as  with Shakespeare, illustrating   that there is more than one way to render a classic character with full success.  RAY ANTHONY THOMAS  as Philmore  plays, the hotel doorman and frequent customer with a poignancy that never cloys , but rather touches with perfect pressure.


DAVID GALLO’S set practically reeks of motor oil, but not uncomfortably, JANE COX’S Lighting illuminates rather than obscures, and the Sound Design of DARRON L.WEST and Original Music of BILL SIMS JR. creates a  further character that  Mr. Wilson seemingly conjured from heaven. I suppose by now you may surmise that I think Mr. Santiago-Hudson as director did a fine job. Truth is, I can’t recall this play served up any better  , at any time or place. Thankfully, that place now, deservedly is Broadway, I suggest that you RUN and witness this limited run to mid March as soon as you can move your feet to 47TH and 8TH…..or hire a JITNEY. 


Information about Jitney


Ticket available at MANHATTAN THEATRE  CLUB’S website


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