WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
INFO $60-$140; 212-239-6200, manhattantheatreclub.com
BOTTOM LINE Loving, authoritative Broadway premiere for Wilson’s least-known work.
In the beginning, there was “Jitney.” It was 1979, years before August Wilson became justifiably revered for his great 10-play Century Cycle, and decades before “Fences,” which, thanks to Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, has suddenly turned the late playwright into a hot Hollywood property.
“Jitney,” unlike the subsequent nine remarkable decade-by-decade stories of black 20th century America, has never before been on Broadway. So it’s especially wonderful that, just at this Wilson moment, we have director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s authoritative “Jitney” production of this less-known part of a masterwork.
This is a meticulously cast, lovingly observed play about life in a livery cab station in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s home base. We are in the ’70s but Wilson never burdened his decades with easy pop-sociological markers. Vietnam is closer but no less life-altering than black experiences in Korea.
Many of the actors are veterans of Wilson’s storytelling style, experts in the unspooling ways he defines character and plot through grand handfuls of luscious and gritty street poetry. The problems at the car service revolve around the everyday joys and heartaches of fathers and sons, wives and husbands, men and their whiskey, and the yearnings in their souls.
New to Wilson, but a major star in nonprofit theaters, is John Douglas Thompson, a majestic actor who viscerally absorbs the playwright’s singular language. Thompson plays the boss, an upright, dignified man whose betrayal by his golden-boy son (the deeply touching Brandon J. Dirden) has crushed him into stone. Living out their own tragedies and delights are the irritating and shrewd office gossip (Michael Potts), the young Vietnam vet (André Holland) and his nobody’s-fool wife (Carra Patterson), defying stereotypes as a couple whose dreams collide.
Perhaps most of all, there is Anthony Chisholm, extraordinary specialist from 58 Wilson productions, repeating and even deepening his portrayal of the office drunk — a man with a heartbreaking reason for his sense of style. Chisholm and designer David Gallo remain from the Off-Broadway premiere in 2000. Gallo’s set is more spacious than the earlier one, but no less colorful and still achingly realistic.
The costumes by Toni-Leslie James value the importance of a special hat or the candy color of a pair of slacks, while the exquisite original blues by Bill Sims Jr. more than honor the music of Wilson’s words.
Throughout, we feel the jaws of so-called urban renewal waiting with Chekhovian inevitability to turn neighborhood businesses into empty shells. But the delights and tragedies in this rich, chatty, eerily mature work remain exquisitely intimate.