You Don't Want to Miss Tony Award Winning "August Wilson's Jitney", Produced By John Legend

Deborah Howell Reviews The Mark Taper Production Here

December 6, 2019
Jitney
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The Center Theatre Group has showcased August Wilson’s plays over three decades, starting with “The Piano Lesson”, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and received 5 Tony Award nominations in 1990. Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” followed with “Two Trains Running”, “King Hedley II”, “Gem of the Ocean”, and “Radio Golf”—featuring gifted actors Laurence Fishburne, Viola Davis, Phylicia Rashad, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson himself.

(Who so impressed John Legend that John threw his hat in to produce “Jitney” on Broadway—for which he won his Tony Award, cementing his status as one of only 15 people in the world who’ve achieved an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony award, or “EGOT.”) The Broadway version of the play received 6 Tony nominations and won Best Revival of a Play.  Small wonder!

So when I heard that director Ruben Santiago-Hudson was bringing “Jitney” to Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum, I couldn’t get there fast enough.  My friend Rena-Marie and I took in the play on opening night, and I think we’re both still recovering.  (Thanks to Rena-Marie for her help in writing this review.) We agree that this is, without question, the best theatre production either of us has ever seen. I’d seen it many years ago in New York, and hoped it was as good as I’d remembered.  I need not have worried.

From the first notes of the opening scene, we were drawn in completely.  The characters are so well-defined, and each so unique. The acting was so pure and transparent we forgot we were watching a play and were immediately and authentically transported back to the ’70s, complete with leisure suits and Applejack caps.

The theatre of the mind was ignited and we were in the scene with the actors, hanging on their every word;  eavesdropping on their schemes and dreams, and letting the music of the era transport us into the heart of the story. We were walking with them. Feeling what they were feeling. Hurting when they were hurting, and laughing hard when they found joy.

 It’s the story of jealousy, deceit, love, dignity and pride as told through two parallel love stories—one of a young jitney driver and his wife and child who are trying to make their relationship work—and the other of an estranged father and son who just can’t connect with  each other when the son is released from prison.

Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1977, it’s also the story of the stable of jitney drivers who are trying to hold onto their station even as the forces of gentrification threaten to shut them down. And we fall hard for every single one of them. To highlight one performance would do a disservice to this incredible ensemble of actors, who weave so beautifully together in this moment it’s like a symphony of humor and heartache.*

The completeness of the linoleum-tiled set sucked us in with the taped-up leather couch and chalkboard where drivers tracked their trips—it’s a character of its own—as is the black phone on the wall of the jitney station where the entirety of the play takes place.

 

Playwright August Wilson is a puppeteer, and we were his puppets—laughing when he expected us to, crying when he required us to—and even taking our very breath away at least once a scene. It was as though Ruben Santiago Hudson was directing our emotions from deep inside our souls and projecting them onto the characters in the rawest possible fashion.

In a word, “Jitney” is stunning.

And it’s here until December 29th.

Do yourself the favor of a lifetime and see this masterpiece.

Tickets are available online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, by calling Audience Services at (213) 628-2772 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Office (at the Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles). Tickets range from $25 – $125 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Mark Taper Forum is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.

 

*The cast of “Jitney” includes, in alphabetical order, Francois Battiste, Harvy Blanks, Amari Cheatom, Anthony Chisholm, Brian D. Coats, Steven Anthony Jones, Nija Okoro, Keith Randolph Smith, and Ray Anthony Thomas. Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.