Life and Love in 1970s Pittsburgh

By Kamila Daurenova, Contributing Writer

With “Fences” nominated for multiple academy awards and “Jitney” on Broadway, the legendary two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson is making a welcome comeback to American stage and screen. Both works belong to his crowning achievement “The Century Cycle,” a series of 10 plays that aim to raise consciousness through theatre and sketch the the 20th century black experience with a play for each decade.

“Jitney,” now playing at the Friedman Theatre, takes place within the 1970’s and is the only play of Wilson’s that has previously never been seen on Broadway. There is no doubt it belongs there, as almost every audience member was elated yet teary-eyed and their standing ovation was immediate.

The plot surrounds a group of men trying to make a living as “jitneys” — unlicensed cab drivers in Pittsburgh during the early autumn of 1977. Becker (John Douglas Thompson), the well-respected and caring leader of the station, is waiting for his son Rooster (Brandon J. Dirden), to return from jail. After his girlfriend made an unfounded and racist accusation of rape, Rooster shot her and was sentenced to execution by the electric chair. While his sentence was changed to a 20-year prison sentence, his mother died of stress before she found out. Becker, on the other hand, never visited his son. Instead, he became a father figure to his employees; from the alcoholic Fielding (Anthony Chrisholm) and gossipy Turnbo (Michael Potts) to the youthful and motivated Youngblood (Andre Holland).

It is impossible not to love Douglas Thompson’s Becker as he breathes life into the almost-saintly character and makes him real. Right before the intermission comes a gut-wrenching father/son confrontation that leaves the audience on the edge of their seats. Well-written and impeccably delivered, not a single eye was left dry with a family feud ripped right out of a real-life photo album.

The heavy-hitting moments of the show are balanced out with just enough hilarious banter and heartwarming interactions. Driven by ulterior motives, Turnbo tries to raise suspicion in Youngblood’s wife Rena by passing on the rumour that her husband is hanging out with her sister at night. Instead of a traitorous affair, it is revealed that Youngblood, recently back from Vietnam, is trying to buy a house for their family. Andre Holland brings charm and charisma to the lovable character, and his chemistry with the emotive and insightful Carra Patterson is undeniable.

The run-down and homely station where all the action occurs is designed by David Gallo, with original music by Bill Sims Jr. as a smooth, atmospheric jazz transition between the scenes. The acute specificity that August Wilson uses in the development of his characters makes his plays feel honest and authentic; like a fragment of real life brought to stage. His goal of echoing “the poetry in the everyday language of black America,” comes through clearly, and the play has a harmonious yet genuine rhythm. The marriage of Wilson’s writing with the stellar direction from Ruben Santiago-Hudsen, paired with an incredible cast, yields characters that are deeply flawed yet very sympathetic. It feels like they could step off the stage and into the audience at any moment.

August Wilson’s “Jitney” is playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 12.

Email Kamila Daurenova at theater@nyunews.com.

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