Jitney was the first play that August Wilson wrote in his famed “century cycle” of ten plays that detailed the African-American experience in every decade of the twentieth century, yet it is the only one of these Wilson plays that had never been produced on Broadway until now. Wilson dashed off Jitney in ten days in 1979, and its most notable production after its premiere in 1982 was Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre in 2000.
Jitney is set in 1977 in a car service shop where men of various ages talk and ruminate and interact and collide and ruminate some more, and it is filled with that mysterious and unpredictable aliveness that is a hallmark of Wilson’s work. This isn’t quite as great a play as the ones that Wilson was to write soon afterward in the 1980s like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences, and maybe that is because it was a piece of material that he re-wrote and built on for years before it played at Second Stage. There is a sense sometimes that it is a mix of a young playwright glorying in his talent for the first time and an older playwright trying to shape or at least curb some of that youthful brio and exuberance. There are maybe a few too many lyric monologues here, but the writing is so red-blooded and passionate and downright gushing with invention that asking for more restraint doesn’t seem right.
The men in Jitney are performers who use their own life experience to entertain each other and themselves, but the first act ends with a heightened confrontation between a father and son. Becker (John Douglas Thompson) is the kindly man who owns the car service, and his son Booster (Brandon J. Dirden) has just gotten out of jail after twenty years for shooting a woman who falsely accused him of rape. Thompson and Dirden play at a pitch of very high intensity and somehow manage to sustain it past what most actors would be comfortable with. There comes a moment when Thompson breaks off the fight and just stares up and off into space in a helpless way. The men in this play are nearly never at a loss for words, and so this pause for breath and silence has a real impact.
In a Wilson play, nothing happens quite as you expect it to, and no one character is seen to have a more enlightened or righteous viewpoint than anyone else. There are no heroes or villains here. Turnbo (Michael Potts) is a busybody and a causer of trouble who points a gun when he feels threatened, yet even he has his likable moments. Wilson never shows just one side of a person or even two but all the sides that he can, and he keeps enlarging and enlarging his perspective. Always in his work there is the specter of death hanging over the living, and Wilson really tries to catch the ultimate unpredictability of death because he is so intensely engaged with the life-blood of his characters.
Even the people who are only mentioned in Jitney but never seen on stage come fully to life in the few moments when they are being described, and that is just one of the measures of Wilson’s gift. The actors in this production of Jitney savor their roles and practically lick their chops over them, for this is a banquet of words and behavior and backstories. Playing Wilson is like playing Chekhov: heaven for actors. And the actors here make that heaven available to us, too, as observers and participants in this drama of life and loss.
Photo by Joan Marcus