August Wilson might be best known for Fences but the Broadway debut of Jitney it's clear the late playwright has a whole lot more to offer.
It takes place in 1977 Pittsburgh, focusing on a group of African-American men who shuttle people around the neighborhood for a small fee. Each of them does it for his own reason, but it's what draws them together -- the tutelage of their leader and mentor, Becker (John Douglas Thompson) -- that solidifies them as a unit. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson captures the spirit of the era and of these lovable yet beaten-down men in the Manhattan Theatre Club production.
You learn enough about the characters in the first act of the show that even if nothing major happened over the course of the play, you'd have enough to watch. It feels like going back in time to a different place. In some ways, the experience of looking back in on that era 40 years later is arguably a better vantage point from which to draw insights and lessons than seeing it unfold in the 1970s during the show's original run. That Becker's personal and professional life begin to show their wear and tear -- and the guys' reactions to and responses to the tumult around them -- it's a bonus to see what they'll do in the face of further adversity. Because the characters are so clear and complicated, the play's story shines even more.
It's a wonder that the themes of the play -- urban renewal, class tensions, broken dreams, disappointing family members -- come through loud and clear on their own without a single pointed, knowing sentence aimed at outlining the themes. Wilson knew not to undermine the goal by spoon-feeding the audience anything, having them pay attention to what's happening behind the scenes as much as what's plainly in front of them.
The play explores more than just what you see at face value. There's complexity not only in the characters themselves, but also in how and when they interact with one another. No relationship is left unexamined. You get the fullest picture and deepest appreciation.