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BWW Interview: JITNEY's Anthony Chisholm Dives Into the Unknown

BWW Interview: JITNEY's Anthony Chisholm Dives Into the UnknownJITNEY's Anthony Chisholm has been in dozens of August Wilson dramas over the past decades. He's been marinating in the juicy role of Fielding for eons but still finds ways to keep each performance fresh.

"I have found more meaning in the role this time," Chisholm said before a recent performance. "You can say one word a billion different kinds of ways. You can put different slants and spins and variations. As long as I continue to work on his words like I'm expecting to, it's not stale." He credits a vision he conjures as his guiding motivation.

"I have a mechanism to keep it fresh," Chisholm said. "It's like sky-diving at night, you're diving into the unknown."

JITNEY, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and co-produced by John Legend among others, was named best play by the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1999-2000. It ran Off Broadway for 10 months before opening on Broadway. "The shows run in six or seven theaters before coming to Broadway," Chisholm said, "to warm it up."

BWW Interview: JITNEY's Anthony Chisholm Dives Into the UnknownJITNEY, a term for gypsy cabs, is the last of Wilson's Pittsburgh 20th Century Cycle and takes place in Pittsburgh's Hill District in 1977. Urban renewal has sacrificed local businesses to pave the way for gentrification. Becker's (John Douglas Thompson) car service is slated for demolition.

The set perfectly embodies what you'd expect from a gypsy car service-it's a little seedy and unkempt.

A discarded cable spool serves as a table for checkers and a worn sofa takes up space. A blackboard tallies up the drivers' rides; posted on a wall are Becker's rules, one of which is no drinking. The ensemble fits together like a musical mosaic, and conversation among the men flows in natural rhythms.

Fielding, an alcoholic, stashes gin bottles between couch cushions and hopes his colleagues don't notice. He's desperate to keep his job so he can feed his addiction. "He's an alcoholic but he has good qualities," Chisholm said. "He used to be the tailor to celebrities and was very successful. The biggest celebrities came to him and he was a stalwart doing that.

"High living got him into substance abuse," Chisholm continued. "It led to a failing business and he had to supplement that by driving cabs."

Chisholm marvels at the playwright's brilliance. "August's writing is an immense journey of finding new stuff," he said. "Like Picasso painting a painting, he could always add a dab or splash."

JITNEY, which sat on a shelf until 1996, was originally just 90 minutes long. "There were no monologues in it," Chisholm said. "Then he wrote monologues for everyone and it became three hours and 45 minutes. Wilson trimmed it down to two hours and 30 minutes," Chisholm said. "Broadway time."

Audiences have been enthusiastic throughout previous runs, Chisholm said. "They vary from one group to another and I just stick to the story and not get caught up in the audience," he said. Jitney, although a serious drama, has some lighter moments.

"It could easily be turned into a comedy, and it's not a comedy. It could be a lovefest. In Philly they laughed at every word that came out of our mouth," Chisholm said incredulously. "We weren't in danger of playing to the audience in that production," he said.

"The director fashioned the show to be funnier. Well, they changed directors and went back to August. He has never written a comedy. This play is not a comedy. We went on to Baltimore then wound up in New York," Chisholm said of that production's out-of-town try-outs.

BWW Interview: JITNEY's Anthony Chisholm Dives Into the UnknownChisholm has always loved the power of speech, and his distinct, gravelly voice has attracted attention since he was a child. Fans also know him from projects like the award-winning television show OZ as Burr Redding, and the film GOING IN STYLE with Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.

He credits his mother for instilling his love of language. "My moms, rest her soul, was an unpublished novelist and wrote a lot of poetry," said Chisholm. "She taught me as a toddler the appreciation of the spoken word."

As a youngster, Chisholm entertained friends and relatives and they went wild. "I wasn't expecting grown people to react that way from things coming out of my mouth," he said with a laugh.

He came to Wilson through the original production of TWO TRAINS RUNNING. "I didn't get an audition for his plays until the fifth one was done," Chisholm recalled. "Then I get an audition for TWO TRAINS RUNNING." His skill impressed enough to warrant a call-back to meet the playwright and director (Lloyd Richards). Samuel L. Jackson got the part for that production but Chisholm auditioned again six months later.

"It was the same scene I did six months earlier," he said. This time he snagged it and stayed through the Broadway run. He became close friends with Wilson after discovering their shared affinity for smoking copious numbers of cigarettes. They were also big fans of professional boxing, and Wilson and Chisholm watched the Evander Holyfield/Buster Douglas fight at a local sports bar.

They became so close that Wilson confided personal information. "He told me things about his life I'd never talk about with anybody," Chisholm added.

JITNEY's universal characters and their struggles to survive could be written about any ethnicity, not only the African-American community it represents. "It's a global play that people can relate to all over the world," said Chisholm, "There's something in the fiber of the words."

Jitney is playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street.

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