Theater Review: Jitney, or How August Wilson Learned to Drive

By
Jitney
From Jitney, at the Samuel J. Friedman. Photo: Joan Marcus

August Wilson was still a young artist, if no longer a young man, when he started work on Jitney at age 34. Was the play, about some car-service drivers scratching out a living, meant as a one-off? Or did he know at the time that it would be the kickoff for the most ambitious, and in many ways the most successful, American dramatic project since O’Neill? That project, sometimes called the Pittsburgh Cycle and mostly set in that city’s mostly black Hill District, would eventually encompass ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. They range widely not only in period but style, from the terrifying post-slavery mysticism of Gem of the Ocean, representing the 1900s, to the buppie real-estate drama of Radio Golf, representing the 1990s. In between are such masterworks as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, and Fences — the last now a movie. (Denzel Washington intends to produce the entire cycle for film.) Jitney is in many ways an outlier among this crowd of heavyweights, being mostly comic and, to its detriment, the only one written in the same decade it’s set, the unlovely 1970s. Wilson came to the premiere, at a small Pittsburgh theater, with his mother, in an actual jitney.

He must have understood that he was too close to the play, because after that debut he all but withdrew it. Fourteen years later, by which point seven of the cycle’s other entries had arrived to great acclaim (Fences and The Piano Lesson both won the Pulitzer), he took Jitney out of the drawer and revised it extensively. The result — seen Off Broadway in 2000 and now, finally, on Broadway, in a deluxe Manhattan Theatre Club production — makes not only a worthy evening of theater but a fascinating archeological artifact, in which the skills Wilson always possessed are jammed up against those he acquired with experience and distance. 

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s staging, on a terrific David Gallo set that makes the hill in the Hill District palpable, tries to honor both, but is limited by the patchwork text. We certainly get the great Wilsonian flow of men’s voices as they spool out their rough poetry of survival, and the delight of characters who are real characters. Some are familiar types from the rest of the cycle: There’s dignified Becker, who runs the off-the-books jitney service; troublemaking Turnbo, the yakker with his nose in everyone’s business; Youngblood, the struggling 20-something trying to do right by his girlfriend and their child; and Fielding, the dipso-sage with unexpected seams of experience and expertise. (He was once a tailor for Billy Eckstine.) Wilson orchestrates their voices with jazzlike felicity, abetted perhaps a bit too glibly by the setting; every time the phone rings with a customer needing a ride home from the grocery store, the kaleidoscope of characters reconfigures. Somehow the phone never rings in the middle of big speeches.

Indeed, the astonishing architecture that typifies Wilson’s later work often feels jury-rigged here. There is no central spine to the story, only — again, as in some jazz — a round robin of variations trying to accumulate into a theme. Becker wonders how to deal with the city’s plans to condemn the building in which the station is located. His son, a convict called Booster, is released from prison, hoping for a rapprochement with his dad. Youngblood’s girlfriend, Rena, complains about the disappearance of $80 from the grocery money. Turnbo spies Youngblood driving around with Rena’s sister, and draws his own conclusions. In short, the jitney station is a microcosm and a symbol of the black working class trying to get somewhere. Each man represents a different adaptation to deprivation in the period just before their steel plants close and their neighborhoods are urban-renewed; each also represents a different titration of reasonable hope and hopeless fantasy. Not for nothing is the cheeriest character a dandy in pastel leisure suits named Shealy; he’s the numbers runner. 

But these feints at a kind of plot-by-collage keep devolving into sitcomery; the speeches that later in Wilson’s career would achieve a kind of oracular magnificence too often feel like filler, complete with ’70s psychobabble, or brilliantly doodled decoration, all jive and braggadocio. (The funktastic incidental music, by Bill Sims Jr., tends to underline the Sanford and Son qualities of the play.) It’s obvious that Wilson tried to address this problem — an enjoyable problem, but still a problem — by yanking some heavy dramatic levers toward the end: Booster’s rapprochement does not go as planned and then an out-of-the-blue tragedy occurs. And though Wilson, even in his best works, was never averse to hammy old-fashioned plotting — he understood that the newness of his voice would best be set off by the recognizable workings of dramatic machinery — he was not in full control of that machinery in Jitney. His hand in the action was not yet invisible; at times he seems to be playing a mean and fast game of checkers, as Youngblood and Trumbo do at the start of the action. Naturally, someone cheats. 

An odd result of this structural problem is that the main characters, the ones who carry the burden of the plot, are less rounded than they ought to be; they’re too purpose-made. John Douglas Thompson (Becker), Brandon J. Dirden (Booster), André Holland (Youngblood), and Michael Potts (Turnbo) bring tremendous verve and honesty to their portrayals but can’t put their full stamp on them. It’s the peripheral characters who really stand out: Keith Randolph Smith as a genial driver who tries to keep the peace, Anthony Chisholm as Fielding (amazingly, he was Fielding in the 2000 production as well), and especially the delicious Harvy Blanks as Shealy. That’s because they are for the most part liberated from Wilson’s dramaturgical agenda; Santiago-Hudson’s attempt to drag them back into the center of it near the end, with a strange Fosse-like jazz-hands intrusion, is one of the rare missteps in his otherwise adept staging. 

To tie such characters more closely to his stories, Wilson soon figured out that he had to make the stories, not the characters, bigger. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, say, or Fences, no one is left untouched by the huge social forces he sets out to describe. If in Jitney we see the marks of Wilson’s ambition but not yet the payoff, that only makes it more valuable. Jitney was the way he got there.

Jitney is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 12. 

Theater Review: August Wilson’s Jitney