August Wilson's Century Cycle is a masterpiece — 10 plays that explore the black experience in America, decade by decade. Nine of them have been on Broadway. And now the tenth is, too.
"Jitney," like most of the cycle, is set in 1970s Pittsburgh. It takes place in a run-down gypsy cab operation and focuses on the relationships between the drivers. Those relationship are everything. Although the men fight (at one point, a gun is pulled) their deep solidarity provides a bulwark of support in a white world that doesn't hate them — but ignores them.
The drivers have been told the city is going to tear down all the businesses on their block, and they're worried. One of them, Youngblood (Andre Holland), a feisty Vietnam vet, says it's because white people hate them all.
But Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), an older driver, says he's got it wrong. They're not hated. They're invisible.
"The white man ain't paying you no mind. You ought to stop thinking like that," he says. "They been planning to tear these shacks down since before you was born. . . . You just have to shake off that 'White folks is against me' attitude. Hell, they don't even know you alive."
Wilson understood invisibility. These 10 plays make visible the African American Pittsburgh community he knew so deeply — the jitney drivers and musicians and sanitation workers and fathers and sons. He put poetry in their mouths. He wove their experience into the American fabric. He was saying: These people matter.
"Jitney" was Wilson's first play in the cycle; it was rewritten several times before his death in 2005, and it's now close to perfect. And as directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, this is a magnificent production, one of the best shows to be staged this year. The ensemble conveys authenticity and a sparkling vibrancy. They live these stories with so much ferocity that we have empathy for each of them — even the hothead gossip who pulls a gun. Even the drunk. Even the father who rejects his son.
The drivers in Jitney have a deep respect for one another and we have a deep respect for them. To generate this kind of empathy is art's highest purpose.
By August Wilson, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre