Talk about perfect timing: Immediately following the premiere of the critically acclaimed film version of August Wilson's "Fences," "Jitney," one of Wilson's lesser-known plays, is receiving its Broadway premiere in a focused and penetrating production directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and featuring an outstanding ensemble cast.
JITNEY Broadway Reviews
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The talented cast soars under the confident direction of Tony-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, in his first turn at the helm of a Broadway production. His familiarity with Wilson's oeuvre - both as a performer and as the artistic director for New York Public Radio's unprecedented recording of all 10 plays in 2013 - serves him well, and other than a lighting flourish that seems out of step with the rest of the production, he offers a straightforward interpretation of the material.
The Broadway debut of August Wilson's Jitney by Manhattan Theatre Club is that very rare thing - a play that ought to be longer. Ruben Santiago-Hudson's production runs two and a half hours and uses the whole of the published text. But the immersion in these characters and their world is so closely woven and complete that when the final line peals out, it's hard not to wish for another act, another scene, another ride.
Conversation sings and swings, bends and bounces and hits heaven smack in the clouds, in the glorious new production of August Wilson's "Jitney," which opened on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. In Ruben Santiago-Hudson's vital revival of a 1982 play only now making its Broadway debut, words take on the shimmer of molten-gold notes from the trumpets of Louis and Miles.
My own is Jitney, which until now was the only drama in the cycle not to have been seen on Broadway (though it had a celebrated run off-Broadway in 2000). That's been rectified with a superb production under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a strong Wilson hand, that has opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Set (and written) in the 1970s, Jitney was the first play in the cycle. It's the work of a young playwright not yet fully in command of his prodigious gifts, yet already confident in voice and in the creation of characters who are as specific to their place and time as they are universal in their flaws, hopes and dreams.
Is there a more accomplished living interpreter of the plays of August Wilson than Ruben Santiago-Hudson? As both actor and director, his deep connection to the dramatist's work has gone from strength to strength in recent years, consolidated further in this gorgeous production for Manhattan Theatre Club of Jitney, the last of Wilson's 10-part chronicle of African-American experience in the 20th century to be staged on Broadway. With the broader exposure to the late playwright's unique voice currently being garnered by Denzel Washington's film of Fences, the timing feels ideal to revisit his inimitably pulsating world - simultaneously mythic and grounded in everyday grit, sorrow and joy - with a peerless company of actors.
With August Wilson's "Fences" playing in movie theaters and Andre Holland attracting Oscar buzz for his star-making performance in "Moonlight," Manhattan Theater Club should draw crowds to this pitch-perfect revival, with Holland in the fine cast, of another play in Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. Although "Jitney" was the only one of Wilson's ten plays that hasn't previously had a Broadway production, this ensemble piece about gypsy cab drivers trying to make an honest living during the 1970s economic depression remains one of. Wilson's best plays.
August Wilson may be a master interpreter of the black experience in America, but his plays more often than not evoke the gray areas of life. And how fortunate to have Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the director's chair, a frequent collaborator who recognizes, more than almost anyone else, the universal themes in Wilson's plays that sing to us all.
While Jitney's impact may not reach the magnitude of Wilson's zenith, FENCES, or outstanding works like Ma Rainey'S BLACK BOTTOM and GEM OF THE OCEAN, this compelling production is continually engaging and thick with humor and emotion.
Until this year, "Jitney" was the only one of August Wilson's "Century Cycle" plays to have never been performed on Broadway. Now it's finally arrived, in an artful and melodic staging directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, one of the most well-regarded interpreters of works by the "Fences" playwright.
By great good fortune it is also possible to see the same thing happen right now in Denzel Washington's filmed version of "Fences," a play that is part of the same cycle. Neither should be missed. In both, fathers and sons wrestle with ruthlessness and rebellion; in both, the outside world has left its scars, but decisions by individuals determine their fates.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson steers a powerhouse cast through the dense alleyways and along the majestic avenues of Wilson's language. We live in a time of clever dramatists working wonders with intertextuality and frames, but so few have an ear like Wilson (Fences) had: a voracious organ absorbing the rhythms and poetry of his working-class characters.
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?
Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs the atmospheric production and fine-tuned ensemble, which includes Harvy Blanks and Ray Anthony Thomas as neighborhood guys.
This is a meticulously cast, lovingly observed play about life in a livery cab station in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Wilson's home base. We are in the '70s but Wilson never burdened his decades with easy pop-sociological markers. Vietnam is closer but no less life-altering than black experiences in Korea. Many of the actors are veterans of Wilson's storytelling style, experts in the unspooling ways he defines character and plot through grand handfuls of luscious and gritty street poetry. The problems at the car service revolve around the everyday joys and heartaches of fathers and sons, wives and husbands, men and their whiskey, and the yearnings in their souls.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson's staging, on a terrific David Gallo set that makes the hill in the Hill District palpable, tries to honor both, but is limited by the patchwork text. We certainly get the great Wilsonian flow of men's voices as they spool out their rough poetry of survival, and the delight of characters who are real characters. Some are familiar types from the rest of the cycle: There's dignified Becker, who runs the off-the-books jitney service; troublemaking Turnbo, the yakker with his nose in everyone's business; Youngblood, the struggling 20-something trying to do right by his girlfriend and their child; and Fielding, the dipso-sage with unexpected seams of experience and expertise. (He was once a tailor for Billy Eckstine.) Wilson orchestrates their voices with jazzlike felicity, abetted perhaps a bit too glibly by the setting; every time the phone rings with a customer needing a ride home from the grocery store, the kaleidoscope of characters reconfigures. Somehow the phone never rings in the middle of big speeches.
Written in 1979 and first staged in 1982, the eighth play in Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle has never been performed before on Broadway. It collects the stories of these men at all stages of life who congregate in this ramshackle station. Ruben Santiago-Hudson's at times over-bright production saunters to a jazz score with the voices of colourful characters who reminisce, gossip, and argue.