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A ‘JITNEY’ TO THE BIG TIME FOR TRTC

Ruben Santiago-Hudson announces JITNEY at the Two River Theater last spring, as Greg Brown and Rona Figueroa (of TRTC’s production of JACQUES BREL) look on. (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

The scene is the storefront dispatch office of an unlicensed gypsy cab service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District — a neighborhood unserved by the city’s major taxi companies, and an unlikely setting for one of the truly game-changing works of the modern theater.

When he wrote Jitney in the late 1970s, August Wilson was a largely self-educated impresario who came from far outside the theatrical and academic establishments to found his own shoestring stage troupe in the Hill District. What he didn’t yet realize was that this short-on-plot, long-on-vivid-characters ensemble drama would develop into the cornerstone of a project that would see its author hailed by many as the greatest American playwright of the last 50 years.

Before his 2005 death from liver cancer, Wilson managed to complete the ambitious work that would serve as his legacy: the Pittsburgh Cycle, a set of ten plays — each one set in a different decade — that encapsulate the African-American experience in the 20th century in ways that are tragic, comic, mystical, musical, realistic, hardbitten, hopeful and, in the case of Jitney, maybe all of the above.

Beginning with a just-added matinee preview on Sunday, January 29, Two River Theater Company makes its first foray into Wilson’s world as Jitney takes the stage for a three-week run. Heading a heavyweight ensemble of nine professional players is Tony winner (for The Life) Chuck Cooper as Becker, boss of the dispatch depot and a man whose relationship with his recently paroled son Booster (J. Bernard Calloway of Broadway’s Memphis) boils over into violence. Anthony Chisholm, who won an Obie as Fielding in the play’s original Off Broadway production, reprises the role of the alcoholic ex-tailor here — and the frankly awesome cast is rounded out by Harvy Blanks, Brandon J. Dirden, Roslyn Ruff, Ray Anthony Thomas, James A. Williams and Allie Woods Jr.

Most exciting of all is the identity of the director attached to this project — Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a longtime friend and professional associate of August Wilson who won a Tony for his acting in Wilson’s Seven Guitars (and who went on to co-star in Gem of the Ocean as well as direct numerous Wilson revivals). The busy stage and screen pro, who turned playwright for his autobiographical Lackawanna Blues (and who’s also familiar from three seasons of Castle, a TV series in which his character was rather disconcertingly bumped off), has been busily overseeing rehearsals in Red Bank even as he continues his current Broadway stint in the Alicia Keys-produced Stick Fly.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen managed to get in a few minutes with Santiago-Hudson as he jitney’d his way between two high profile projects.

redbankgreen: Flashing back to when you took part in the new season announcement at Two River Theater, it was very exciting to learn that they’d be taking on JITNEY, and that they’d be working with you — somebody who’s as much an authority on August Wilson as Michael Cumpsty is in the works of William Shakespeare.

RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON: I’m glad to be coming here and working with John Dias, Michael Hurst and everyone, to be part of the new movement that they’re doing here.

One of the things that makes JITNEY so interesting is that it was written before Wilson’s whole grand concept of the ten-play cycle really came together. It has, I think, a looser sort of feel that allows it to be considered a standalone sort of work.

That’s true about all of the plays, really. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Gem of the Ocean are singly great plays by themselves. What’s magnificent about the ten plays is the collective line that runs through them… the links to certain characters, certain businesses, places and events. When you see them all produced together you pick up on those things, see how one relates back to another. But I can put up any one of those plays by itself and blow your mind!

A few years back you took part in a TV panel discussion where you said something to the effect that “August Wilson is the star” when it comes to putting together productions of his work — something that seems very much the case at Two River, with his name before the title and his picture on the ads. Would you agree that, now more than ever since his passing, the August Wilson brand is crucial to getting these plays in front of an audience, especially something like JITNEY, which calls for a lot more actors than most Broadway dramas these days?

Jitney is the only one of the ten plays that was not produced on Broadway, and even now… I don’t necessarily look at this as a plan to be bringing it to Broadway, but even if I brought them a dynamite production, the first thing the producers would ask would be ‘who’s starring?’ You know, is Denzel available?

But August Wilson IS the star. While he was living, he earned every kind of Broadway, Off Broadway accolade, every kind of national and international acclaim. His effect on the history of theater, the architecture of theater… really American anthropology over the past few decades… can’t be exaggerated.

You’re working with a really amazing cast in JITNEY, and I noticed right away that all nine of your actors have experience in at least one high profile production of a Wilson play. That’s certainly not uncommon for actors of this generation, but is it a factor that you were looking for when the show was being cast?

In this case, with not a lot of time to get this thing together, I wanted to work with actors whose work I knew, who were comfortable with this, who could handle the poetic nature, the melody of his language. Straight off, I felt that the cast must have a feel for that language.

The version of JITNEY that we’ll be seeing onstage in Red Bank kind of evolved considerably since it was first written in the 1970s, correct?

When he submitted it in 1979, it got rejected because the play was less than 90 minutes. He added to it over the years, added a lot of the Booster and Becker stuff… and he rewrote it from different perspectives, with more of a focus on Becker, and then Booster later on.

Some of the things that wound up in Jitney later on were actually taken from some of his other plays. He took speeches from Seven Guitars, including things that my character said. I was there when he took them out! I was so angry at him, I didn’t speak to him for two whole weeks. But of course he did the right thing.

August did what he did not to satisfy Ruben, but to serve the play, and serve his vision. And our friendship lasted til his death.

And SEVEN GUITARS turned out to be a real career milestone for you.

When I auditioned for August Wilson, he didn’t ask me about my background doing Moliere or Shakespeare. He asked me for my roots, and I gave him everything I had.

Even after you got to know him well, did Wilson come across to you as this magnetic, larger than life figure?

August Wilson WAS life itself. There was a mysterious side to him, but if you opened up a dialogue with him, you found yourself trapped with him for two hours, just held captive by his storytelling, his passion for his people and his art.

To my thinking, he had this amazing eye and ear for detail, for things like regional dialect and folklore and history.

Each of the plays has something different to offer; he had many ways of telling a story. Broadway producers like plays that are linear in their storytelling, but when you think about it Fences, which is the most linear, the most sound in its structure, is not one of the most liked of the ten plays. And Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which is probably the least linear, is also probably the most liked.

Being involved with the work of August Wilson changes people. People of all colors, all religions, all backgrounds… he brings them into an arena and sends them out changed. When you study his work, produce his work, you understand things just a little bit more. I consider myself a disciple of August Wilson: a colleague, a mentee, a brother of August Wilson.

And from the looks of things, a man who carries on Wilson’s staggering work ethic!

I’m still on Broadway, you know, so yes, it’s a hectic schedule. But it’s worth it. I get to dance with August Wilson!

Jitney presents the first of five previews on Sunday, January 29 (3 pm) and Tuesday, January 31 (8 pm); opens Saturday, February 4 (that performance is SOLD OUT), and runs a schedule of evening and matinee performances, Wednesdays through Sundays until February 19. Tickets are $37 – $57 (with a new discounted price of $24 for anyone 30 years and younger) and are available by calling the TRTC Box Office at 732.345.1400, or visiting the TRTC website for schedule details and availability — as well as info on dinner/show packages and other special-event performances.

For a longer version of this article, check out Tom Chesek’s new blog, Upper WET Side.

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