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Anthony Chisholm never tires of August Wilson's Jitney
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
After 50 years in the theatre, Anthony Chisholm has naturally played a wide variety of roles, but there's one that he just keeps returning to: Fielding, a mischievous, alcoholic car service driver with an eye-opening past in August Wilson's Jitney. The story of hard-working men trying to survive in 1970s Pittsburgh, the play is currently enjoying its belated Broadway debut at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre and, once again, Chisholm is in the cast.
His two-decade dance with Fielding eerily mirrors the late playwright's own journey with the drama. Begun in 1979, it was the first play written in Wilson's ten-part Century Cycle, which explores the African-American experience in the 20th century by setting one show in each decade. However, after it was submitted and rejected twice for development at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, Wilson put it aside to work on his breakthrough, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. And though that first iteration of Jitney was eventually staged at Pittsburgh's Allegheny Repertory Theatre in 1982, Wilson extensively reworked it for its second premiere at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 1996, which is when Chisholm came on board.
"When we started this play, it was only an hour and a half long," says Chisholm in his unmistakable craggy timbre. "It was very skeletal, and one of the actors -- he's gone now, he passed -- Willis Burks, said, 'August, nobody's going to know that you wrote this play!' August said, 'Why not?' Willis said, 'There's no monologues in it at all!' So August proceeded to write monologues. He wrote me two, and the second one, when you discover that I am a tailor, is all based on stories I told him about my father. My father graduated from Tuskegee University in the middle of the Depression in this country, and there were no jobs for anybody in that period. But he got a job as a redcap [porter] on the railroad. He started meeting these musicians, many of them famous. So his tailoring skills emerged and, like Fielding, he did make suits for celebrities, like Count Basie, and eventually opened a tailor shop in Cleveland where I was born."
Listening to Chisholm's rich, detail-packed tales about his artistic history, it's obvious why Wilson was inspired to customize Fielding to the actor's personality and past. And it certainly turned out to be a great fit: Chisholm toured with that original production for years to multiple cities, including New York (where it played Off-Broadway and won a slew of awards) and London (where it snagged the 2002 Olivier for Best New Play). Afterward, though Chisholm certainly took on other projects -- notably parts in two other Wilson plays on Broadway, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf, for which he earned a 2007 Tony nomination -- Fielding continued to be a favorite. He reprised the role in multiple productions, including one in 2012 at Red Bank, New Jersey's Two River Theater, where he was directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
Now Santiago-Hudson is helming Jitney on Broadway, though Chisholm admits he had to "audition to get my part back!" As expected, he nailed it, and though Chisholm can't count how many times he's played Fielding at this point, he insists he'll never tire of it. "I created the role, and I have done it thousands of times, but I'll do it thousands more because this is August Wilson," he says. "If you're an actor and you do Richard III a thousand times, if you're a Shakespeare fan, you would do it a thousand more. I'm committed."
Like much of Wilson's work, Jitney is driven by characters and poetry more than plot. In the rundown Hill District of 1977 Pittsburgh, a group of unlicensed African-American livery drivers talk about their lives, loves, aspirations, failures, sins, and secrets. Fielding is one of those guys, and while he starts off as a pathetic drunk, constantly bumming a few bucks for a bottle of hooch, he ends as a tragic figure, a talented man hobbled by racism, classism, and addiction.
While Chisholm wears Fielding like a second skin, he has an intriguing trick for making sure his performance never becomes rote. "I try to imagine that I'm skydiving out of a plane at night with a blindfold on -- you don't know what's going to happen!" he says. "That's a technique I use mentally to keep it fresh." And though there are ghosts informing his interpretation -- his father, his good friend Wilson (he was one of the playwright's pallbearers), even his younger self (as a struggling actor in the '70s, he made ends meet as a cab driver) -- he says that when he gets onstage, none of that is in his conscious mind. "I don't think; I just do," he explains. "If you think, if you become aware of the audience, you've left the play, so I try not to. I go into the trance. I know the story; I've done my homework; I just do it. I'm sure there's an intangible where maybe the spirit of my pops comes through because I'm bringing him along with me, but I'm not thinking of him. I don't have to do anything about the thinking of what Fielding's talking about as much as the feeling he has when he says it."
With the long-awaited film adaptation of Wilson's Fences on the Oscar shortlist, and Jitney finally on Broadway, it seems the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright is enjoying yet another major cultural moment. Chisholm thinks this show is a great way to get hooked on the dramatist's work. "There's a chance that the rest of the world will get the Jitney fever," he says. "Most dramas -- white, black, Asian, Indian, Latino -- they don't last much more than six months onstage. Jitney I believe can cross over because the people who see it usually do so more than once. I was walking in the 80s on Broadway, and a Japanese family was coming uptown. The father stopped me and said, 'I've seen it five times, five times Jitney!' That infection is global. We had an Irish family at a talkback, and they dominated the conversation. They said we reminded them so much of their family and people they knew in Dublin. What makes Jitney so magical is its humanity. There's no mysticism or ghosts flying around. It's straight, no chaser. There was something in August's other plays that was kind of ethereal, that some audiences had to sort out in their brains. You don't have to do that in Jitney. There's no rocket science going on here. It's just guys talking to each other."
Top image: Anthony Chisholm in Jitney; top and bottom photos by Joan Marcus.