‘Jitney’ Broadway Review: Pre-‘Fences’ August Wilson Runs on All Cylinders

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson doesn’t completely conceal the play’s flaws but he does expose its brilliance

Finally, August Wilson’s “Jitney” makes it to Broadway in a powerful, if uneven, new staging at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where it opened Thursday.

Until now, “Jitney” had been the only one of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays not to have appeared on Broadway, even though it was the first he wrote, in 1979. Has any great writer delivered a more accomplished first play?

To be fair to the early works of O’Neill, Williams, and Miller, Wilson edited “Jitney” over the years, and only much later made it the eighth play of his 10-play cycle, covering the 1970s of the African-American experience.

At the core of “Jitney” is the fiercely troubled father-and-son relationship that Wilson explored to greater effect in his 1987 play, “Fences.” Where those two men carry on an Oedipal struggle for dominance in the Maxson family, “Jitney” explores a delayed, even more explosive, conflict between father and son: Becker (John Douglas Thompson) and his only son meet after a 20-year absence when that son, Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), is released from the penitentiary after killing a white woman who falsely accused him of rape.

Wilson, like Arthur Miller before him, knew all about the role of chance. They also knew how to expose tragedy amid the trappings of melodrama. In Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Wilson’s characters are forever on the verge of falling off the economic cliff, and a few have already landed at or near the bottom.

Becker isn’t one of them, but he feels the threat. It’s why he opened a gypsy-cab service even though he has a pension from the local mill. It’s also why he put all his trust, years ago, in his son, a brilliant student who won three science contests in a row and was destined to leave the financial straits of the Hill District, which is now in the process of being torn down. “Watch out for Becker’s boy!” people in the neighborhood used to say of the young Booster.

Among the cab drivers, Becker is much more than the entrepeneur. He’s the custodian, referee, den mother, and moral force that keeps the business, as well as the other men’s personal lives, from completely derailing.

It’s a big, unruly family of adult male children with driver’s licenses. There’s the chronic alcoholic, the chronic philanderer,and the chronic gossip, in addition to a few hangers-on who don’t drive cars but need a place to work the numbers or bum money or recover from a hangover.

Becker functions and perseveres despite having carried an invisible hundred-pound boulder on his back for the last two decades. Thompson’s remarkable performance makes us feel every ounce of that burden, and his explosion of hurt and anger at the end of the first act crystallizes his despair. “Watch out for Becker’s boy!” he tells his son when they meet again. “What did I get? Tell me what I get? I get a murderer!”

As that deeply misunderstood son, Dirden embodies the exceptional honor student of 20 years ago. His memory of how his father had once been “big” but lost that stature in a confrontation with a landlord regarding an overdue rent check is heartbreaking. What’s missing in the performance is any glimpse of Booster’s long incarceration. Has it broken him? Has it hardened his resolve? Wilson’s text strongly suggests the latter, but Dirden is more the returning college professor than a trapped man just released.

More edge is also needed in the performances of Andre Holland (“Moonlight”) and Carra Patterson, who, as the sparring lovers Youngblood and Rena, ultimately make peace over a newly purchased house in a better part of town. Holland successfully delivers the wise-guy Young Turk, still wanting to fly high in a coop of aging roosters. But in his final scene with Rena, the two actors are strapped with the play’s one set piece of sentimental writing, as if Wilson hadn’t fully digested “A Raisin in the Sun” to make the story his own.

The play’s other misstep is a sudden death toward the end, the mechanics of which Wilson never got around to adequately disguising. What transcends the melodrama is the play’s tragic, overwhelming sense of loss. There’s the Oedipal twist that Becker throws at his son, accusing him of having murdered his mother, who died only weeks after Booster was sentenced. There’s also the loss of other lives, lives belonging to men still living.

Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) is the resident drunk, a DUI waiting to happen. Turnbo (Michael Potts) is the resident gossip who tells stories but never developed a life worth talking about. Both Chisholm and Potts clearly know the comic possibilities of their characters, but keep the easy laughs in check to suggest the big men they might have become, if given a chance.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction doesn’t completely conceal the play’s flaws. He does, however, expose its brilliance, with a good ear for Wilson’s sly, deprecating humor. Repeatedly, characters deliver a line fraught with ambiguity, only to have another character respond in a way that exposes a whole new subtext. He keeps “Jitney” running on all cylinders despite a few bumps in writing and performance.