Jitney, the last of August Wilson’s plays in his American Century cycle to be seen on Broadway, made its debut at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre January 19. Set in 1977, the story follows the lives and work of unlicensed taxi drivers (jitneys) as they circulate in and out of the station run by Becker (Jay Douglas Thompson). Opening to rave reviews, the cast joined Playbill at the opening night after party to talk about the importance of completing the cycle, their characters, and more.
But first up was Grammy- and Oscar-winning recording artist John Legend, who serves as a producer on the show. “I love August Wilson I think he’s an iconic American playwright,” he said (1:50). “I grew up in the Midwest and my family, a lot of the characters I see in August Wilson plays remind me of people in my family. My dad was a factory worker, my grandfather drove a concrete truck, and my uncle was a mailman. So I knew a lot of those characters and the way they talk to each other, I recognize all of that. So I’ve always thought of him as an important playwright that tells some different stories that may not always be seen.”
Legend recently appeared on screen in the hit movie musical La La Land, and Jitney features original music composition by Bill Sims Jr. When asked if he would consider writing original music for a play or musical, Legend responded with a resounding yes!
Brandon J. Dirden joined the livestream to talk about his character, Booster, and his intense scene with John Douglas Thompson. “We were patient with it until one day it cracked wide open for us,” said Dirden. “The devastation in that scene, it’s a mystery how it can be life-affirming.”
Harvy Blanks (5:50), making his Broadway debut in Jitney as Shealy, is no stranger to Wilson, having done all ten shows in the Cycle. “You’re part of history and you don’t even realize what kind of impact that is in the moment,” he said of bringing the final play to Broadway.
Ray Anthony Thomas (7:30) plays Philmore and he chatted about the challenge of “creating a full human being as quickly as possible,” having played the role—with less stage time—three times before. “It feels as though it’s different every night,” he says of keeping it fresh. “I think because the writing is so truthful that all you have to do is tell the truth.”
Fresh from his acclaimed performance in the Golden Globe-winning film Moonlight, star André Holland visited the livestream (14:00) and revealed that Wilson is the reason he became an actor. The Piano Lesson was the first Wilson play he ever saw. But despite his Moonlight fame, he’s happy to return to the stage. “In some ways, I guess it’s changed in that a lot of people are talking about [me] … but other than that not much as changed,” he said.
Later on, Michael Potts (30:15) stopped by to talk about his character, Turnbo. “He means no harm, he speaks his mind,” laughed Potts. To prepare for the role, Potts read a book of interviews and conversations with Wilson, learned about the places that Wilson writes about, reading the play over and over, and—at the request of director Ruben Santiago-Hudson—the full cast watched the documentary Wylie Avenue Days about the Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The cast also surrounded themselves in the icons and styles of the ’70s to create the era of the decade onstage.
The night wasn’t just about the stars onstage, it was also about other actors on Broadway who were compelled to see the historic production, like Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon (35:30). “The play is tremendous,” said Dixon, “and this group of actors is fantastic and it can’t be beat.” Tony winner LaChanze seconded that (49:45). “It was phenomenal,” she said. “You have to see this.”
Jitney plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through March 12.