Seeing different August Wilson plays directed and acted by the same theater artists must be like it was for Elizabethan theatergoers watching the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men for King James I) perform Shakespeare’s “Richard II” one week and his “Twelfth Night” the next. That’s what I imagine after having seen Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” last September at Two River Theater in Red Bank NJ and his “Jitney” last week on Broadway, both directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and featuring Brandon J. Dirden in pivotal roles.
Having seen Santiago-Hudson’s Tony-Award performance in Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” and his directed productions of that play as well as of “Ma Rainey,” I am once again blown away by his handle on “Jitney,” finally on Broadway. Reunited here with several actors from previous productions, notably with Dirden, Santiago-Hudson has emerged as the go-to August Wilson interpreter. (He had previously directed a mostly different-cast “Jitney” at Two River in 2012.)
Marion McClinton, who directed “Jitney” off Broadway in 2000, wrote that August Wilson is, in fact, “our Homer, our Shakespeare…telling us the stories that we need to know.” And while Wilson’s plays are about African-Americans, “it doesn’t matter if you are black, white or Martian…you are watching your own lives acted out before your very eyes.”
Each of Wilson’s ten plays illustrates ‘the way it was’ for African-Americans in a particular decade of the 20th Century. “Jitney” is the 1970s entry. It centers on a group of hack drivers in a Pittsburgh neighborhood underserved by that city’s licensed cabbies. The play, an indictment of urban neglect, is a multi-populated character study with a shattering father-son parable at its core. The under-the-table drivers (“Where else could I make fifty dollars a day tax free?”) operate as a dues-paying collective out of Becker’s car-service storefront, soon to be boarded up. Under “Becker’s rules,” they take turns answering calls; their down time is spent bickering, gossiping, philosophizing and, in one hopeful case, planning for a better future.
The men are distinct types, but not written or played as stereotypes. Fielding (Anthony Chisholm, the original and at Two River) is a drunk who elicits Becker’s compassion. The consistently negative Turnbo (Michael Potts) is alternately irritating and very amusing. Andre Holland and Carra Patterson play Vietnam vet Youngblood (“…the checker champ of ‘Nam”) and his mate Rena, a young couple whose devotion is challenged by misunderstanding. (One of their scenes is positively buoyant.)
The play’s dramatic center revolves around the relationship between Becker (John Douglas Thompson) and his son Booster (Dirden), just released after serving twenty years for a terrible crime he refuses to repent. Both actors are marvelous; the father-son scenes are electrifying.
Santiago-Hudson told me in Red Bank that he envisioned the play as a piece of music – a symphony of several movements where all the instruments complement one another and where even the silences are eloquent. To that end he – and his marvelous ensemble cast – have crafted a superb production whose vernacular translates into every theatergoer’s language. Not pretentious for a second, “August Wilson’s Jitney” is nonetheless richly poetic. I also realized this time around that the ending – the play’s final moment – provides remarkable insight into what follows in the characters’ lives. Trust me; you’ll leave the theater on a high.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, 261 47th Street, NYC. Schedule and tickets: 212-239-6200 or at ManhattanTheatreClub.com
Two of the three human characters in Gino Dilorio’s “The Jag,” world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company, are (in just-coined Latin) personi extremis. One, Leo “Chick” Chicarella (Dan Grimaldi), is a bigoted, foul-mouthed, ill-mannered lout. He’s also near-blind (or not, depending on the scene). The other, Carla Carr, is a ditzy kewpie doll with a savant’s knowledge of vintage Jaguar motor cars; Estelle Bajou plays her as a cross between Rain Man and early-career Kristen Chenoweth. She’s actually rather endearing, although her spacey act wears thin. That they are both one-dimensional has more to do with the writing than the playing. The third character is Chick’s son, Donald “Bone” Chicarella, who acts as a buffer between Chick and Carla; Christopher Daftsios plays him with restraint until Donald’s patience runs out. An overwrought father-son scene is gripping.
The fourth presence in the play is its eponymous vehicle around which the story revolves. An actual 1967 Jaguar was taken apart and re-assembled on the set. (Designer Jessica Parks and prop woman Marisa Procopio’s service station/body shop is excellent.) Co-owned by Chick and his son, the Jag is in need of refurbishment and engine repair, a job for which Carla is hired after she passes Chick’s auto-knowledge exam. (Cousin Vinny, anyone?) For his own reasons, the younger man wants to accept a $20,000 offer for the car; pop wavers on that issue.
Late-in-play revelations preclude giving away too much, but issues that are raised include the son’s motives in selling, family-history denial, sibling- rivalry, disputed sexuality and a dance lesson. (That last is the play’s one charming interlude.) Scatological and homophobia terms and f-bombs proliferate throughout, which, in the close audience-to-stage quarters, are an assault on more than the ears. (One such early phrase does re-appear in the play’s funniest line toward the end.)
At an intermissionless ninety minutes, “The Jag” wraps up without too much dilly-dallying, which is fine because I didn’t need to spend any more time with the boorishly written, acted and, presumably, directed (Brendan Burke) Leo “Chick” Chicarella.
Through Feb. 12 at New Jersey Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs & Fri at 8PM;Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2PM. Tickets ($46): 732-229-3166 or at www.njrep.org