August Wilson had the ability to write characters who when enacted excellently come to life on stage as if they are real people. His skill is demonstrated once again in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s powerful revival of “Jitney,” this time directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. (See Search for the review of a previous off-Broadway production.)
The setting is the headquarters of a car service in the Hill District of Pittsburgh during the fall of 1977. Looming ominously is a plan to wall up the building and eventually demolish it to make way for a development. David Gallo has designed a convincing, shabby headquarters, with windows through which we can see a parked car with a for-sale sign, neighboring buildings and people ambling by or arriving to enter.
Gradually we meet the men who answer calls for transportation and go off on their runs. Between calls they gather to chat or gossip. Their frustrated aspirations are delineated, reflecting conditions for the black community. Wilson’s gifts include mixing comedy with a serious side. There is humor, for example, when one of the drivers, Youngblood (André Holland), secretly buys a house and his partner, Rena (Carra Patterson) is taken aback when she blasts him for not letting her see it first. One can find the encounter funny, as well as serious and revealing about their relationship.
Also, in getting to know the men, we are treated to an amusing discussion about who is more beautiful, Lena Horne or Sarah Vaughan. The men are an odd assortment, and we are made aware of how difficult life is and the obstacles that block paths toward fulfillment.
An intensely dramatic scene occurs between the operator of the car service, Becker, played by the extraordinary actor John Douglas Thompson, and his son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden). Bosster has been released from prison after serving a long stretch for killing a woman for revenge. Becker bitterly disowns him. Later the plot takes a further tragic turn.
The cast picks up the rhythm of Wilson’s dialogue and speech patterns, with each actor doing a superb job, including Harvey Blanks, Anthony Chisholm, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith and Ray Anthony Thomas.
One can walk away feeling one knows these struggling men with vivid mental pictures of them. Wilson’s poignant, well-conceived play is getting the fresh staging it deserves, and the playwright is receiving a growing appreciation for his body of work. At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-139-6200. Reviewed January 23, 2017.