Much has already been written about Denzel Washington’s film adaptation of Fences, which has recently been released on blu-ray and streaming services. Washington took a little heat for his direction, but basically I think he did a fine job in his freshman effort behind the camera. He demonstrated a solid understanding of what a director does: strong craft, not much artistry, and little fuss. He got out of the way so that the play could be seen and heard.
Viola Davis rightly earned numerous plaudits in the role of Rose Maxson. She deserved an Oscar, but for Best Actress not Best Supporting Actress (a discussion for another time). Washington was necessarily volcanic as Troy, though I still cannot get the indelible impression James Earl Jones made in the Broadway premiere. Unsung in much of the criticism is Stephen McKinley Henderson. An excellent stage actor (he recently starred in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Between Riverside and Crazy), he added much to the role of Bono. Fences offers a number of three-hander scenes between Troy, Rose, and Bono, and Henderson more than held up his own end. He deserves great praise as well.
“I don’t think you can ever know too much about craft.” —August Wilson
It comes something as a shock that August Wilson’s Jitney has just now made it to Broadway. The play has a complicated history first premiering in 1982 at the Allegheny Rep and, then after extensive rewrites, at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1996. It did not make it to New York until 2000 with a production at Second Stage. Congratulations to the Manhattan Theatre Club for bringing it to the Great White Way.
Though a part of the Pittsburgh Cycle, it is not as fully a realized piece in a socio-political sense as, say, The Piano Lesson (which is perhaps the jewel in the crown of the cycle). Further, the concluding two scenes feel rushed. Nonetheless, the play has many pleasures and shares with Fences a strong foundation of American theatrical realism.
The greatest gift Jitney offers is the final scene of Act One. Wow. Booster (Brandon J. Dirden) has just been released from prison, where he had been incarcerated for murder. After twenty years, there is a reunion between him and his father Becker (John Douglas Thompson). And they go at, tearing into each other, each blaming the other for the death (apparently passive suicide) of Booster’s mother. Recrimination builds upon recrimination. Hurt builds upon hurt. A bitter history of a family is encapsulated in the space of fifteen minutes. Hegel said that tragedy is the opposition of two rights; that is played out here in two great howls of pain. It is brutal, glorious, devastating, honest at the most fundamental human level. It is achieves the heights of O’Neill at his best. (At intermission, I kept flashing back to the Roundabout’s production of A Long Day’s Journey into Night).
Dirden and Thompson give as startling and unvarnished performance as any that can be found on Broadway right now. Other performances captivate as well. André Holland, who did a lot with his few minutes of screen time as Andrew Young in Selma, captures the weariness and hope of Vietnam veteran Youngblood. Michael Potts make the most of the complicated Turnbo – a blowhard, but not without positive qualities – and Keith Randolph Smith invests his Doub with equal measures of humor and wisdom. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson keeps the direction of the two-hander scenes – the heart and soul of the play – crisp and energized. This was an ensemble cast that listened.
Jitney occupies an unusual place in the cycle as does the 1970’s in African-American history. It is kind of a pause between the Civil Rights Movement (and the decades leading up to that movement) and the paradox of the 1980’s and beyond. The world is shifting beyond the characters are not sure what it is shifting to, and that creates an air of uncertainty for characters and audience alike. The city wants to close down the jitney station for rezoning purposes, but what does this mean exactly. It feels a bit like complaining about Shakespeare’s use of pirates as a deus ex machina in Hamlet, but Wilson himself seems unsure here. Becker’s promise to fight city hall dissipates quickly because of his death due to an industrial accident. The concluding moment where the torch is passed to Booster feels unearned. It is the uncertainty a flaw or a design? It is not clear. Nonetheless, Jitney earns its place in the canon. Like the best American plays, it dramatizes in no uncertain terms the searing pain and heartache of family.
I am back from the Southern American Studies Association Conference in Charleston, South Carolina. I had hoped to have posted more from the conference in Charleston, but I became quite ill the second day there. The norovrius and blogging are not conducive to one another.
From what little I did get to see, the quality of the scholarship was quite good. William Black, a graduate student in the history program at Western Kentucky University, presented a particularly fine paper entitled “When Honest Abe Came Down South: Lincoln Sightings in African-American Folklore”. Utilizing oral histories preserved by the WPA back in the 1930’s, Black painted a very unusual picture of Lincoln, at least a mythopoetic Lincoln, from these tales dating back to slavery. Basically, Lincoln is portrayed as almost a trickster god, along the lines of Loki, who fools and humiliates Southern plantation owners. I don’t want to steal Black’s thunder here, but I am looking forward to his further research in this area.
The plenary speaker for the conference was Tiya Miles, from the Center of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. As with Black, I do not wish to steal her thunder. But her talk focused on so-called ghost and haunted houses in the Deep South. Many of the ghosts of these houses are the product of the often violent nature of the master/slave relationship of the antebellum period. These houses are becoming bigger tourist draws than Gone with the Wind style mansions. And, of course, that the need for these ghost stories to somehow revolve around this nature’s dark history with slavery is something of potential significance in a contemporary cultural context indeed. It certainly has me thinking about my own work concerning August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.
What is immediately clear on the surface, though, is that the Civil War — it still haunts, still defines us, still polarizes us.