When death comes, between scenes, in August Wilson’s Jitney, it comes quickly and arbitrarily. No dramatic contrivance is wasted on it, no character is clearly marked for it. It just happens. The fact serves to underscore the central truth that makes each of Wilson’s plays such a rich experience: He simply lets the life of his characters unfold onstage as it would in reality.
I don’t mean that the plays are shapeless — far from it. Wilson, who died in 2005, had a canny sense of theatrical effect and a strong ability to imagine the destiny that each figure in his works plays out. He just didn’t bother to contrive and manipulate as a way of narrating those destinies. His sense of life was too powerful — perhaps too overpowering — for him to bother with that.
A perfect illustration happens midway through Jitney, one of Wilson’s earliest plays, now being given its first Broadway production at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre. (An earlier production was seen Off-Broadway in 2000.) The scene, set — as with most Wilson plays — in Pittsburgh’s largely black Hill District, is a call station for unlicensed-cab (“jitney”) drivers. They cater to the African-American community, which finds legally licensed white-run cab companies reluctant to respond to their calls. The drivers in Jitney are not employees of a fleet but an informal cooperative of independent operators. Inevitably, they get on each other’s nerves at times. So a moment occurs when the young and jittery Youngblood (André Holland) finds himself arguing with Turnbo (Michael Potts), an older driver with a moralizing streak and a dangerous fondness for meddling in other people’s business. Turnbo, attacked, goes out to his car and returns with a large, nasty-looking revolver.
The moment is defused by Becker (John Douglas Thompson), the boundlessly patient organizer and manager of the cab station, and the gun is put away. Anyone bred on the rules of conventional playwriting knows the principle, attributed to Chekhov, that if you display a gun in the first act it must go off in the second. But Wilson was not a rulebook writer. Other guns are mentioned in Jitney, and other violence, mostly emotional, emerges, but Turnbo’s gun is never seen or used again. The play’s richness comes from this impulse of Wilson’s, to tell his story without being systematic or schematic. He’s also nonjudgmental: Turnbo, a manipulative creature with a large capacity for malice, is also, at times, astute and witty. In the first New York production, Stephen McKinley Henderson made him memorably creepy, a sort of honey-tongued, cajoling Tartuffe. Potts, an equally inventive actor with a very different presence, gives him another sort of striking, shuddery-comic reality: sharp-tongued, quick-minded, coated in the piety of a public-spirited citizen.
The story of Turnbo’s attempted interference in Youngblood’s family affairs is Jitney‘s subplot — or would be if the work had anything so mechanical as a plot. It balances elegantly in contrast to what would be the main line: the story of Becker’s reunion with his son, nicknamed Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), just released from prison after serving twenty years on a murder rap. The backstory of Booster’s crime is a complex one, and his arrival stirs up a heated conflict with his father. In an emotionally wrenching confrontation at the end of the first act, we learn that Becker’s patience is in fact not infinite, or maybe that in human relations, some parts of the past are too painful to forgive.
The two threads, each playing a young man’s hopes against an older man’s bitter disappointments, make up the core but not the total substance of Jitney. As in every play of Wilson’s Twentieth Century Cycle, the life of the surrounding community becomes the atmosphere that suffuses and influences the individuals’ actions. Here, the time is the late 1970s. The Vietnam War, of which Youngblood is a veteran, has left lasting economic scars on the neighborhood. The jitney station and the block it stands on may be torn down (David Gallo’s set neatly suggests both lost grandeur and present-day grunge). The secondary characters, like the protagonists, seem to come in pairs: two older drivers — assertive, alcoholic Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) and low-key, moderate-minded Doub (Keith Randolph Smith) — and two non-drivers who visit regularly, Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), the earnest, hard-working doorman at a nearby hotel, and Shealey (Harvy Blanks), the neighborhood numbers runner. Even the cast’s only woman, Youngblood’s common-law wife, Rena (Carra Patterson), has a shadow second — her unseen half-sister, Peaches, with whom she suspects Youngblood of carrying on.
The anthropologist Ruth Benedict was an important early influence on Wilson. Each play in his cycle is also a study in the larger cultural patterns of an African-American community, noting how they alter — or don’t — from decade to decade. Behind the lives of the jitney drivers, and the extraordinary anecdotes that arise from their glorious, richly colloquial talk, lies the running commentary of incoming phone calls, telling us what their customers need a cab for: to bring home groceries, to be picked up after church, to transport them and their luggage to train station or airport, and in one startling case even to help commit a theft (the driver charges extra). Wilson does not judge; he lets his characters do that as they contemplate each other’s actions. Moral complexity is part of the depth and density of his writing: He provides completed life stories but no facile answers.
That depth and density comes out vividly in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production. Every role is fulfilled handsomely and inventively. Thompson, an actor of classic stature who can move with ease from Shakespeare to the colloquial contemporary, dominates his scenes seemingly without effort; Holland, brash and vivacious, makes an ambitious youngster’s hope and frustration nearly tangible. Patterson uses strongly focused feeling to anchor a role that can seem nebulous. One reservation: Dirden, a fine actor in general, somewhat lacks the hard edge and suspicious uncertainty that shadow men just released from a long prison term. But to say he walks too casually into the jitney drivers’ world is also a reminder of how fully Wilson’s script and Santiago-Hudson’s production have created that world. Far better than following the rules of playwriting, Jitney follows the unruly, unpredictable, inexplicable patterns of life.
By August Wilson
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Through March 12