Encore Michigan

August Wilson’s ‘Jitney’ drives into The Musical Hall

Review November 14, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.–August Wilson is one of the few playwrights over the last 100 years of American theater who manages to perfectly capture dialogue the way people, his characters, really speak. There’s nothing worse in a play than having characters making speeches that sound like they came from the writers pen rather than from the character’s heart and mind.

In Jitney, now running at The Music Hall in Detroit from Broadway in Detroit, a group of men ranging in age from 23 to 60 scratch out their living in a Pittsburgh car-service station in the early 1970s. There are really intersecting arcs of this play.

When the city threatens to board up the building in which the ragtag station is housed, and the boss’ son returns from prison, tempers flare, potent secrets are revealed and the fragile threads binding these people together are frayed.

There is much a sense of forged family among these men that bind tighter than blood. And one of the biggest and most destructive family grudge machines is unmet expectations of a loved one. But part of the writing genius of Wilson is to draw natural humor out of the characters even as one of them holds a gun on the other or in amidst an incredibly painful scene between two characters breaking one another’s hearts. The men all have their sympathetic sides and they can in one instant make a gesture to take care of the other, and in another deliver a cutting one-liner that is a playful rubber dart into the man’s personality quirk.

The dialogue is so rich, you’d get the idea that Wilson recorded the men he grew up with. But he also delivers a perfectly crafted story arc while writing his people.

These actors embody Wilson’s characters perfectly. Not one actor misses a beat, and that so rarely can be said. Keith Randolph Smith plays Doub, the retired railway man who drives and co-manages the station. Steven Anthony Jones plays the role of Becker, the owner and leader of the station and a retired steel-mill worker. Harvy Blanks is Shealy, who is not a driver but a love-torn numbers man who uses the payphone in the station. Ray Anthony Thomas is a bachelor busy-body who is in everyone’s business.  Anthony Chisholm is Fielding, a former first-class tailor who lost himself in booze. Francois Battiste is Booster, the son of Becker who has been in prison before making his entrance. Amari Cheatom is Youngblood, a restless Vietnam vet who is commitment phobic with his girlfriend and mother of his baby son. Brian D. Coats is Philmore, a doorman from another neighborhood who knows the Jitney crew.

Wilson’s dialogue is as endemic to these men as David Mamet’s is to real estate chiselers in Glengarry Glenn Ross. There is an urban patois in his Pittsburgh plays. But these actors so perfectly bring the words to life that you can easily forget they memorized their lines.

Jitney is directed by one of Wilson’s foremost interpreters, Ruben SantiagoHudson. The one room set by David Gallo does the work proud. Not only does he create a detailed, perfect run down, condemned-looking room for the jitney crew, but his attention to detail to create the exterior of the neighborhhod that we see through the windows of the station gets one’s attention. Costuming by Jane Cox, right down to Shealy’s leisure suits and the baggy suit issued to Booster by the prison is dead-on for the early 70s. Lighting designer is by Darron L. West and sound is by Bill Sims Jr.

Jitney plays through this weekend at The Music Hall. Catch it if you can.

The show was originally produced by Manhattan Theatre Club.  The Detroit engagement is being presented through a partnership between Broadway in Detroit and the Detroit Public Theatre.