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New York City Theater

Friedman Theatre

It may take half an act but once ears get adjusted to the actors’ patois, they will be seared by the lyrical defeats and hardscrabble victories in the revival of August Wilson’s moving “Jitney.” The seven men who eke out a living while dreaming of better lives inhabit Wilson’s world with such exactitude, it’s as if they’re sharing their lives with the audience.

The men work for a car service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Wilson’s favorite setting for his cycle of 20th-century plays that chronicle black lives through the decades. The district is threatened by impending demolition – white developers plan to board parts of it up to erect apartment houses that will, in effect, gentrify the area.

The drivers are similarly threatened both externally and internally. A cross section, they include the drinker, the bully, the sensitive kid, the bereft father whose son is in jail for murder. The father, Becker, played with Zeus-like authority by John Douglas Thompson, owns the business. He’s the glue that binds the men to their jobs. If he goes downhill, so will they.

Waiting for calls (their passengers are snubbed by regular taxicabs), the men gab and argue, gradually revealing themselves. Before long, we get to know them in all their weaknesses and strengths.

When the young Becker (nicknamed Booster, ambiguously played by Brandon J. Dirden) arrives, sprung from jail, his father’s greeting is filled with recriminations. Father blames his son’s crime and subsequent sentence for aggravating his mother to a literal death. It’s a scene of heightened emotions, comparable to the Oedipal conflict in “Death of a Salesman.” Becker’s repetition of the accusatory “Where was you?” knifes through the scene.

Countering is the warm reconciliation between Youngblood (a fine André Holland, of the film “Moonlight”) and his girlfriend Rena (a tough-gentle Carra Patterson). He’s saving up for a house; she wants a home. ”It ain’t what you want,” advises one of the older men. “It’s what you need. Black folks always get the two confused.”

Nothing much seems to happen but, under Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s snappy direction, lives are revealed, among them that of Fielding who can’t wean himself off liquor. As played by the incomparable Anthony Chisholm, a Wilson regular, he’s rich in wisdom, though weak in control. But all the actors are adept at combining Wilson’s way with language both poetic and prosaic.

In Wilson’s works, the old implore the young to make something of their lives. Even David Gallo’s decrepit-looking set and Toni-Leslie James’ period costumes further the dichotomy between old and young. Race matters, yes, but Wilson’s genius is to make communal emotions matter more.

--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 25, 2017

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