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Review of August Wilson's "Jitney" at Two River Theatre Company

By Gary Wien

(FEBRUARY 5, 2012 -- RED BANK, NJ) -- August Wilson's Jitney opened last night at the Two River Theatre Company in Red Bank. Wilson is undoubtedly one of the most important playwrights of the last fifty years and one of my personal favorites as well. A star-studded cast comprised of former Tony, Obie and Drama Desk winners, and veterans of Wilson's work, brought the play to life under the expert direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Jitney is one of 10 plays in a monumental series Wilson created to detail the African-American experience in the 20th Century. While Jitney has long been somewhat overlooked in favor of more critically acclaimed pieces in the cycle such as Fences, The Piano Lesson, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it offers a unique perspective into Wilson's career as it was the first in the series to be written.

The play takes place inside a cab station in Pittsburgh, sometime in the fall of 1977. Several older cab drivers form the basis of the station along with a young mechanic (Youngblood, played by Brandon J. Dirden). The owner of the station (Becker, played by Chuck Cooper) was recently informed that the city planned to board up the neighborhood in two weeks, ultimately tearing everything down to build new housing. As word gets out about this, the employees are understandably worried about their future. The timing is particularly bad for Youngblood who had just put down a down payment on a home before hearing the news. In addition, the timing coincides with the release of Becker's son Booster (played by J. Bernard Calloway) from prison. As a teenager, Booster murdered his white girlfriend after she lied to the police and said he had raped her.

Becker never forgave his son for what he did. One wonders if Becker might have marched for civil rights a decade earlier with the hope of a better life for his son -- a dream he believed his son threw away with the barrel of a gun. The older cab drivers form a nice contrast to Youngblood and his girlfriend Rena (played by Roslyn Ruff). Within the two generations, one can see just how dramatically the lives of African-Americans changed within a period of two or three decades. Instead of simply working in restaurants or running elevators, young African-Americans like Youngblood were offered opportunities that his elders never knew. At one point, Becker even takes offense at Youngblood's hatred of whites, urging him to forge his own path rather than rely or blame others for his destiny.

"You have to get away from that white man hatred," said Becker."… the white man doesn't even know you're alive."

"They knew I was alive when they drafted me and sent me to Vietnam," replied Youngblood.

While the entire cast gives great performances, a few stand out. Allie Woods Jr. (Turnbo) largely steals the show with a hilarious portrayal of a busy-body, gossiper who swears he "doesn't want to get into anybody's business" while Anthony Chisholm (Fielding) is brilliant as an alcoholic trying to make do while avoiding one of the principle rules of the station -- no drinking. Brandon J. Dirden (Youngblood) and Roslyn Ruff (Rena) have great chemistry and make a strong couple. And, in the end, Chuck Cooper (Becker) is the glue that keeps everything together through a very strong performance.

The play provides a fascinating look into the projects and the people who live there. While tearing down and rebuilding a blighted area may sound good on the surface, it becomes more complicated when you see the actual affect it will have on the people who live and work there. These people may appear invisible, but they recognize they have strength in numbers and wonder if it may be better to stay and fight rather than give up so easily. The projects aren't a blight to them, it's home. As with all of Wilson's work, Jitney will get inside you and make you see the world a little differently than before. It's his trademark and his genius...

Jitney is scheduled to run until February 19. In my opinion, New Jersey doesn't get enough productions of Wilson's work, do yourself a favor and make sure you don't miss this one.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

For more by this author, click here

Holmdel Theatre Company Presents 'ART'
(HOLMDEL, NJ) – The Holmdel Theatre Company (HTC) will present 6 performances of Yasmina Reza’s ‘ART’  from December 7th through December 16th. Translated from French by Christopher Hampton, the play tells the story of what happens when Serge buys an expensive painting, and the reactions of his two closest friends, Marc and Yvan, to his purchase. As what begins as a discussion about the quality of the painting that Serge has purchased quickly devolves into petty jabs and personal attacks, the three men border on destroying their friendships.
Pebble Players Presents "Heathers, the Musical: High School Edition"
(SUMMIT, NJ) -- Celebrating their 10th season, Pebble Players has been entertaining Summit residents and audiences from surrounding towns with sophisticated Off-Broadway quality performances. The 2018 Season opens with "Heathers The Musical: High School Edition," directed by Jayne Myers and choreographed by Jaimie Woodruff.  Performances are Friday, November 16 and Saturday, November 17 at 7:30pm and Sunday, November 18 at 2:00pm. 
NJPAC Presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies
(NEWARK, NJ) -- New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies from Thursday, March 21, 2019 - Saturday, March 23, 2019. The high-style music of “The Duke” is the heart and soul of this 1981 Tony-winning Broadway hit, directed with dazzle by André De Shields (The Wiz). Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke Ellington, re-creates the original show’s elegant dancing and tapping as choreographer.
Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater present Teahouse by Lao She
(PRINCETON, NJ) --Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Teahouse by Lao She on November 16, 17 and 18 at 8:00pm and November 17 at 2:00pm in the Donald G. Drapkin Studio at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton campus. Teahouse is considered a masterpiece of contemporary Chinese theater, spanning 50 years in modern Chinese history from the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Republican Revolution to the birth of the People’s Republic, bringing together over sixty characters who represent all walks of life. The production is directed by senior Changshuo Liu.
Axelrod's Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts Program Presents "Peter Pan"
(OCEAN TOWNSHIP, NJ) --  A family musical that’s perfect for the holiday season, “Peter Pan” is flying onto the Axelrod stage December 8-16. Axelrod’s award-winning Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts program presents one of Broadway’s timeless classics in a fully staged production directed by Lisa Goldfarb with musical direction by Randy Hurst and choreography by Wendy Roman.  

Broadway’s Next H!T Musical LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
It’s Friday, October 26, 2018, and the Broadway’s Next H!T Musical cast is just about ready to take the stage at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ.
The Last Apple Pie: "Apples In Winter" Opens At Centenary Stage
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The five-time Tony award-nominated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages, returns to the stage with a 10th Anniversary Tour at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino! Performed in the venue’s ultra-modern Sound Waves theater, Rock of Ages runs from now until November 4, 2018.
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Event calendar
Thursday, Nov 15, 2018


New Politics @ House of Independents, Asbury Park - 8:00pm

THE REPUTATIONS @ The Saint, Asbury Park - 7:30pm

TOTO @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 8:00pm


An Actor's Carol @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 7:30pm

ANNIE, The Musical @ Axelrod Performing Arts Center, Deal Park - 8:00pm

Apples In Winter @ Centenary Stage Company - Kutz Theater of the Lackland Center, Hackettstown - 7:30pm

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat @ The Levoy Theatre, Millville - 7:30pm

Spring Awakening: The Rock Musical @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 8:00pm


PARSONS DANCE @ State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick - 8:00pm


Crybaby Matinee: March of the Penguins @ Hopewell Theater, Hopewell - 11:00am

View all events

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