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August Wilson’s Jitney review at Samuel J Friedman Theatre, New York – ‘piercing drama’

The cast of August Wilson's Jitney review at Samuel J Friedman Theatre, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus

Honour, family, lost promise, and legacy are the broad themes that August Wilson hones in Jitney, his tale of a motley crew of African-American unlicensed cab drivers in 1977 Pittsburgh.

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.

The drivers include Youngblood (Andre Holland), a Vietnam veteran trying to change his ways, Fielding, a former tailor who drinks too much (Anthony Chisholm), and Turnbo, an infuriating busybody (Michael Potts). The group is held together, in this soon-to-be demolished building, by the tough but respected boss, Becker (John Douglas Thompson).

The production drifts into slack sitcom broadness at times (still a pleasure with Wilson’s delightful characters) and a few melodramatic tableaux moments. But when the storytelling gets personal the production sharpens and offers a platform for moving, memorable performances.  Becker’s confrontation with his son Booster (Brandon J Dirden), who’s just been let out of prison, hits the hardest. Thompson and Dirden in Arthur Miller-like fashion excavate the emotional damage father and son have done to one another. They wound each other with targeted precision. Thompson’s performance as the proud Becker now diminished, shatters. Dirden, in the face of Becker’s disappointment, absorbs dolorous blows with anguish.  Holland (Moonlight) shines with fire when he scraps with Turnbo and with vulnerability when he clashes with his girlfriend.

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Verdict
Broad comedy sits uneasily alongside piercing drama in a play that remains a fine showcase of August Wilson’s voice
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