'Jitney' at the Friedman Theatre: The enriching intensity of August Wilson

(Left to right:) Michael Potts, John Douglas Thompson, Anthony Chisholm, Keith Randolph Smith, and Andre Holland in the Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre Production of August Wilson's "Jitney."

Of all the intense, shocking father/son confrontations that roil American drama — Willie and Biff in Death of a Salesman, Big Daddy and Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — Becker and Booster in Jitney ranks among the fiercest. Ruben Santiago-Hudson has directed August Wilson’s drama with a no-let-up intensity that makes a big Broadway theater feel like an intimate space.

The space itself (designed by David Gallo) is notable: a beat-up store-front office of a gypsy-cab business. Like so many August Wilson plays, Jitney involves real estate. City officials — we’re in the Hill District in Pittsburgh — plan to raze the whole city block, taking the office with it.

The drivers are a bunch of guys who know one another from way back and make us feel as if we do, too. This is insider privilege: As a white woman, I have no idea how black men talk among themselves when there are no women and no white people around. This access to this funny, teasing, angry, gossipy, judgmental, charming, annoying male world lives in the sounds and rhythms of Wilson’s dialogue.

Those sounds and rhythms are underscored by the sound design
(Darron L.West), built on wailing original music by Bill Sims  Jr., known internationally as “Master of the Blues.”

The plot turns on Becker (John Douglas Thompson), who runs the business. He — with the rest of the guys, and the audience — awaits the return home of his son Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), in prison for 20 years for murdering his white girlfriend when she falsely accused him of rape. That racist lie is an old old story, and Wilson wisely shifts attention away from the social injustice to the family, to the personal human cost.

The production’s remarkable ensemble — all the male actors are veterans of many Wilson productions — includes Harvy Blanks, Anthony Chisholm (a standout among many), André Holland, Michael Potts, Keith Randolph Smith, and Ray Anthony Thomas. Carra Patterson plays a young single mother, hoping her man, recently home from Vietnam (it’s 1977) and haunted by his wartime experiences, will do the right thing. 

The young men might have a chance at a future, but the older men are drowning in despair or inertia or liquor or memories. Wilson refuses to console them — or us — with trite hope, but he celebrates their nobility, their keeping on keeping on.

The Century Cycle of plays — Wilson wrote one representing each decade of the 20th century — is vastly enriched by this production.

Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St.