Jitney Triumphs With Heart ; Goodbye, Gielgoodies!

How pleasant to report the superb achievement of August Wilson’s Jitney and its magnificent production under Marion McClinton’s direction at the Second Stage Theater. You should see this bluesy drama that speaks to us with such generous heart. I have no doubt that Jitney ‘s ensemble of actors touches greatness and that Mr. Wilson has written the best new play of the year by a hop, skip and a mile.

New to us ! Jitney has never been staged in Manhattan before. It’s the revised version of Mr. Wilson’s first play that was originally produced in Pittsburgh in 1982 and in that sense it’s a coming-of-age play. It’s the one in which Mr. Wilson found his voice. Some voice! If this is his first play, how many others did he discard, how many more stories and laments and poems had he written in his head?

Jitney gave birth to his unique cycle of dramas about the black American experience in the 20th century, including such signature works as Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom . To be sure, there are times when this early play skirts the melodramatic, but from the beginning Mr. Wilson has always been too fine a dramatist to be sunk by easy sentiment. We are struck so forcibly by his plays–by the memorable music his characters sing–precisely because his dramas are so unpretentiously humane. I thought admiringly of Seven Guitars , a recent play of his, in which Mr. Wilson makes mundane life–the everyday world of living and getting through–extraordinary, like a gift or a poisoned chalice. So in Jitney we find the world of small and profound lives lived out in good humor and mortal struggle and amazing grace.

The play is set in the run-down station of a gypsy-cab company in l970′s Pittsburgh. The performances of every member of the cast are so innately natural and alive that an intense discussion among three cab drivers on the competing charms of Lena Horne versus Sarah Vaughn can have us silently joining in.

“It’s them pretty women like Lena Horne get a man killed.”

“You ain’t got to be pretty to get a man killed. Any woman will get a man killed if you ain’t careful. Am I right, Doub?”

“You right. That’s why I don’t talk about women. I don’t talk about money either. Them is the two things you never hear me talk about too much. Them is the two things that get most people killed.”

“Women and money will get a preacher killed,” concludes Fielding, the drunk who used to be Billy Ekstine’s tailor.

These characters–the alcoholic failure, the malicious gossip, the quiet one, the young Vietnam vet, the numbers runner, the father, the son–tell us surprising things. How a woman known as Cigar Annie, cursing as she was evicted from her home, raised up her dress in the street for all to see; or the tale about the passenger with the TV set he’d just stolen from his grandmother. But beneath the banter and the stories are ruined lives–or a tribute to people who deserve better than what life gave them in their struggle for denied dignity. Nowhere is the play more intensely moving than in the scenes between the elderly father, Becker, who runs the jitney station, and his son, Booster, once a promising college student, who has just been released from jail after serving 20 years for killing a white girl who had betrayed him.

“Where were you when your mama was dying and calling your name?” the father protests, denying forgiveness in heartbreak. “You are my son. I helped bring you into this world. But from this moment on I’m calling the deal off. You ain’t nothing to me, boy. You just another nigger on the street.”

You should try to see August Wilson’s Jitney , as I say. It’s a memorable evening in every way, including the wonderfully evocative urban landscape of set designer David Gallo. Let’s name the brilliant cast that plays so beautifully together: Willis Burks II, Paul Butler, Anthony Chisholm, Leo V. Finnie III, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Barry Shabaka Henley, Russell Hornsby, Carl Lumbly and Michole Briana White.

Sir John Gielgud Tries a Burger !

Now, Sir John Gielgud’s world was a million miles away from August Wilson’s. But then, he was on a different planet from all of us. The actor, whose reputation as the greatest of the 20th century was rivaled only by Laurence Olivier, died on May 21, at age 96. Here are two or three things I know about the great man.

His eccentricity was legend, of course, but he was almost certainly the last person on earth to go so long without ever having eaten a hamburger. In the 70′s, a friend of mine was appearing in David Storey’s Home with him and one day Sir John asked where everyone went for supper after the show. His own choice would have been the Savoy Grill or his favorite Edwardian haven, Rules, in Covent Garden. Told that the younger members of the company all went off to Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden for a burger, he asked if he could join them one night. “A burger ,” he intoned as if holding up the dead body of Cordelia. “I’ve never had one, you see.”

The outing was meticulously planned weeks in advance. And at last, one night after the performance, they all piled eagerly into a car, which dropped them on the corner outside Joe Allen’s. But as the patrician, Roman figure of Sir John began to enter, he suddenly turned on his heels, striding purposefully in the opposite direction. “Oh, do let’s go to Rules!” he cried. “It’s so much closer .”

His unstoppable faux pas were known affectionately as “Gielgoofs” or “Gielgoodies.” He possessed a quicksilver mind and words tumbled out of him before he could stop himself. He was sitting next to Elizabeth Taylor, who was married to Richard Burton at the time, when he suddenly mused: “What does Richard see in all these dreadful women he keeps marrying?”

He had been avoiding a character actor named Clive Morton for weeks on tour, when Morton finally summoned up the courage to knock on his dressing room door. “Thank God it’s you,” he exclaimed. “For one dreadful moment I thought it was going to be that ghastly old bore Clive Morton!”

He was the last of that glittering triumvirate–Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson–which, with Dame Peggy Ashcroft, led British theater into its golden age. His family lineage in the theater alone stretched back into the 19th century. He was the greatest lyrical actor in 20th-century classical theater–in Kenneth Tynan’s memorable phrase, claret to Olivier’s burgundy. But he was less the traditionalist than his legend suggests. As early as the 40′s and 50′s, he had embraced the revolutionary new work of Tyrone Guthrie, St. Denis, Komisarjevsky and Peter Brook. His Lear at Stratford was known as the “Noguchi Lear”–the sensationally experimental production’s set and costumes were designed by the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

I first met Gielgud in l976 when he was playing his astonishing seedy poet opposite Ralph Richardson in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land . I feel blessed to have interviewed the two great actors together over lunch during the run. They were loving friends. Tweedy Sir Ralph arrived with a roar on his motorbike, offering his helmet to the head waiter with the aplomb of an English gentleman handing over a bowler. Sir John breezed in, pink and sunny, immaculately dressed in a Savile Row suit, eager for the fray. “Wish you were lunching with us, Johnny!” said an acquaintance at another table.

“Don’t you find Indians are so extraordinary?” he asked Richardson at one point over the oysters and grouse. He had been reading Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday . “When I was in Bombay at the end of the war, I was lying naked in my hotel room when the telephone rang. A voice said there was a lady to see me. Well, I’d been flying all week and was too tired to see anyone. But five minutes later, the door burst open and an enormous Indian lady in a green sari looked at me trying desperately to cover myself with a tiny towel and announced, ‘My name is Mrs. Sabawala. My house is music in stone. Will you come to lunch tomorrow?’ It turned out she had played Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit with the local amateurs. Her house had a huge gate with a cardboard crescent moon pinned to it. Nothing to drink.”

“Nothing to drink!” Richardson exclaimed.

“And terrible chairs. As you sat down your back was lacerated by the teak. You had to practically go down on your hands and knees to look out the windows. There was a tiny poet in a white suit who read a long poem he’d written in my honor. It happened with Allen Ginsberg in New York, too. I seem to inspire poetry in strange people. But I was so startled by the Indian poet that I stepped back in alarm and fell in a pool covered in lilies.”

“My God, what you suffer!” said Sir Ralph Richardson, laughing. “Not that you care, Johnny.”

“Couldn’t have happened in England,” said Sir John Gielgud.