‘Jitney’ review: August Wilson’s play soars in Broadway debut

Talk about perfect timing: Immediately following the premiere of the critically acclaimed film version of August Wilson’s “Fences,” “Jitney,” one of Wilson’s lesser-known plays, is receiving its Broadway premiere in a focused and penetrating production directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and featuring an outstanding ensemble cast.

“Jitney” is the 1970s chapter of Wilson’s 10-play cycle exploring African-Americans in Pittsburgh’s Hill District during each decade of the twentieth century. Until now, it had been the only drama in the “Century Cycle” that had not played Broadway.

It is set in a rundown gypsy cab station circa 1977 that is inhabited by African-American men who work as drivers. There are bits and pieces of plot, including about how the city plans to tear down the cab station along with the rest of the block in two weeks, but “Jitney” functions primarily as a detailed study of the characters and their rough environment.

Becker (John Douglas Thompson), who runs the station, unexpectedly confronts his adult son Booster (Brandon J. Dirden), who has been released from prison early. Booster, on the verge of attending college on a science scholarship, murdered a woman who had falsely accused him of rape. His mother died shortly afterward from grief.

The cast includes actors who have been in other plays by Wilson, including earlier productions of “Jitney.” They excel at delivering Wilson’s colloquial but lyrical language.

Thompson’s physically ailing and earnest Becker contrasts nicely with Dirden’s well-groomed and unapologetic Booster. Great performances are also provided by Michael Potts as the combative Turnbo, Anthony Chisholm as the inebriated Fielding and Keith Randolph Smith as the comparatively tranquil Doub.

Denzel Washington, who starred and directed the “Fences” film, is hoping to produce films of Wilson’s other nine plays. In the meantime, this production of “Jitney” offers those who were unfamiliar with the “Century Cycle” prior to seeing “Fences” with the opportunity to continue the journey.

If you go: “Jitney” runs through March 12 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre | 261 W. 47th St., manhattantheatreclub.com