By: Isa Goldberg
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s revival of Jitney delivers a heartfelt optimism all within the harsh realism of August Wilson’s drama, about a group of African American men in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1977. This is Wilson’s well-known turf, after all, and he knows these characters with an almost innate intimacy, that this director shares.
Each is a study in how men cope with the racism that society perpetuates, and which also defines them. In the hands of this outstanding ensemble, we can appreciate how well drawn Wilson’s characters are. The remarkable John Douglas Thompson plays the owner of the rundown gypsy car service for which they all work. As a man who strives to live beyond his perceived chains, he takes no prisoners. His cohorts – an endearing drunk, Fielding, humorously played by Anthony Chisholm; a righteous, gossipy trouble maker, Turnbo, authoritatively played by Michael Potts; and a tough skinned youth, Youngblood, sensitively portrayed by Andre Holland. It’s he who says, “The past is over and done with. I’m just thinking about the future.”
The plot, however, turns around Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas) who has just been released from a 20-year prison term. He’s Becker’s son – the greatest disappointment of his life, and a man he singularly renounces. Still, it is he who ultimately moves them all beyond their perceived fate.
What speaks to us most admirably in this, Wilson’s 8th drama in his Pittsburgh Cycle, is the need to debunk stereotypes. At the play’s opening, Turnbo and the more fair-minded Doub (the gifted Keith Randolph Smith), argue about whether or not Lena Horne is really pretty or if people just think she is, Turnbo insisting that the younger Sarah Vaughn is far greater. The conversation provokes an issue about public perception and self-perception. What controls our identity and who is in charge of it?
A similar question surrounds the men of the failing and soon to be outdated gypsy cars. Are they outcasts who will always be cut off from the mainstream of society, or men who can reach beyond the entrenched racism and xenophobia, which they experience. The answer, my friends, speaks for itself, in this very human and touching drama at The Manhattan Theatre Club.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
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