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Photograph: Joan Marcus

Broadway review: August Wilson’s Jitney fires on all cylinders in excellent revival

Written by
David Cote

It’s hard to know whether the vehicles driven by the unlicensed cabbies in August Wilson’s 1979 ensemble drama are in AAA-certified top shape. These Pittsburgh hacks are themselves rough around the edges, and their rides could probably use a new carburetor here, a fresh paint job there. However, the show they occupy is built to last and moves like a dream. Jitney last played New York in 2000 and makes its long-awaited Broadway debut to start 2017 right: a soul-sustaining, symphonic piece by a late, great master, about fathers and sons, workers and their dreams—deliverance for audiences hungry for soaring language and tough truths.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson steers a powerhouse cast through the dense alleyways and along the majestic avenues of Wilson’s language. We live in a time of clever dramatists working wonders with intertextuality and frames, but so few have an ear like Wilson (Fences) had: a voracious organ absorbing the rhythms and poetry of his working-class characters.

In his landmark 10-work “Century Cycle” (one play per decade of the past century), Wilson pulled off the feat of being both intensely local and naturalistic yet global and cosmic. When office boss Becker (John Douglas Thompson) reunites with his son Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), released after 20 years in jail, it’s more than a domestic scene. The showdown between an unforgiving father and a repentant, desperate child is practically biblical in its fury and grief.

Jitney is a workplace drama with a pay phone that rings constantly for rides and a broad cast that cycles through the door as we get glimpses of each member’s complicated, wounded, sometimes tragic past life. It’s not driven by plot so much as the impulses and chemistry of the characters. And they have been incarnated to perfection by a great group including Anthony Chisholm as the drunk Fielding; Michael Potts as hot-tempered gossip Turnbo; and André Holland as Youngblood, a Vietnam vet trying to settle down. Whichever of these men gets behind the wheel at any given time, you’re in for a thrilling journey.

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By August Wilson. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission. Through Mar 12. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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