Among the achievements of the American theater over the last century, August Wilson’s work ranks comfortably with the best. Any one of the plays he wrote — one for each decade of the 1900s — would put him there; taken together they aren’t just an unparalleled series; they’re the paradigm of lyric realism, tours of experience whose unblinking record of the lives of African-Americans is suffused with poetic imagery, flights of fancy and spiritual reverberation. Everyone has his or her favorites, I’m sure, and for many it’s Fences, which is currently in movie theaters and looking like a contender in several Academy Awards categories, including best picture.
My own is Jitney, which until now was the only drama in the cycle not to have been seen on Broadway (though it had a celebrated run off-Broadway in 2000). That’s been rectified with a superb production under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a strong Wilson hand, that has opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Set (and written) in the 1970s, Jitney was the first play in the cycle. It’s the work of a young playwright not yet fully in command of his prodigious gifts, yet already confident in voice and in the creation of characters who are as specific to their place and time as they are universal in their flaws, hopes and dreams.
We are in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (where most of the plays are set), an African-American enclave rattled by the competing forces of urban neglect and unchecked renewal that was unfolding in older cities throughout the country. In the ramshackle office of a car service, the owner, Becker (the magisterial John Douglas Thompson) has recently learned the city will be tearing the place down to make way for an unspecified urban renewal project.
Becker abides the various conflicts and lapses of his motley crew of drivers, including the busybody Turnbo (Michael Potts); Fielding, the drunk (Anthony Chisholm); Doub, the righteous one (Keith Randoph); and Youngblood, the kid on the make (André Holland). Becker’s world is further undone with the arrival of Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), the son he has not seen since his incarceration 20 years earlier for murdering his girlfriend after a racially charged incident. If you’ve seen Fences, you’ll detect Wilson’s clarion voice in the fraught confrontation between father and son.
Perhaps my own stint as a cab driver (when cabs were Checkers) connected me so affectionately to the goings-on at Becker’s shop, which is realized in perfect rundown detail by David Gallo, with atmospheric lighting by Jane Cox and terrific costumes by Toni-Leslie James. But in a secondary plot driver, Youngblood has secretly bought a house to surprise his girlfriend Rena (Carra Patterson, who is good, if not quite up to the level of the rest of the ensemble) and their child. When Rena finally learns what he’s done, her response is so comically, unexpectedly true that Jitney transcended these crummy environs and found a place in my heart.
With January comes the Public Theater’s Under The Radar, a showcase of work from around the country and the world that, along with a couple of other downtown festivals, coincides with the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters meeting here. Under director Mark Russell, Under The Radar has a fantastic record of identifying great companies and provocative work. This year was no different. The program included the return of Belarus Free Theater, which has become an electrifying charge through several UTRs, and American folk/rock/theater group called The Bengsons.
With Time Of Women, Belarus Free Theater continues to show audiences what life is like in a totalitarian universe. They are a company in exile, and in Time Of Women, they recreate the ordeals in and out of a Minsk KGB prison of three women, journalists and activists. Written by Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada, and staged in an appropriately cramped workshop space at New York University, the three spectacular actresses (Maryna Yurevich, Maryia Sazonava and Yana Rusakevich) move seamlessly between the prison, where they are alternately interrogated and cajoled by an agent (Kiryl Kanstantsinau) and a Christmas gathering at an apartment where the accommodations are barely improved.
Performed in apartments and other off-the-radar settings, Time of Women is a play of essentials performed by a “poor theater” dependent as much on what an audience brings to it as by the enduring perseverance of the talented company.
The Bengsons’ Hundred Days was a different matter altogether. At the center of a group versed in rockabilly, folk and, let’s call it Prairie Home Companion-ism, are Shaun and Abigail Bengson. They’re married and have come to tell the tale of their courtship and the odd journey that has led to the play’s title, which is meant to be apocalyptic, but which, thankfully, proves to be something of a red herring. It’s deceptively loose, fresh and entertaining. Look for them on the road.