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James Earl Jones, August Wilson’s ‘Jitney’ get love at the Tonys

Linda Armstrong | 6/15/2017, 11:45 a.m.
James Earl Jones was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 71st annual Tony Awards Sunday, June 11.

James Earl Jones was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 71st annual Tony Awards Sunday, June 11. Jones is definitely deserving for his Broadway career spanning 60 years and 20 productions, and for winning two Tony Awards for “The Great White Hope” and “Fences.” Jones, receiving this marvelous honor, said, “I want to thank my wife CC for being such a great companion in my life and being producer of our son Flynn.”

I remember interviewing Jones when he was in “Driving Miss Daisy” on Broadway, and I asked him what his approach to his character was. At that time, he was 80 years old and he said that he is constantly honing his craft and he discovers something new about the character at every performance. I thought to myself, “That is brilliance and humility combined.”

Jones’ signature performances throughout his life have been onstage, in movies and on television. It is no wonder that this 86-year-old has been bestowed with so many honors, having also received the National Medal of the Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors. The 2011 Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented him with an honorary Oscar.

I cherished his performances in more recent Broadway shows, including “On Golden Pond,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Best Man,” “You Can’t Take It With You” and “The Gin Game.” Whenever Jones takes to the stage, it is a gift to experience.

The other African-American to be celebrated at the Tony Awards was the late, great, August Wilson, as his play “Jitney” won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play. “Jitney” coming to Broadway is actually making history, because it means that every one of August Wilson’s 10 plays in his American series of works chronicling Black life in America made it to the Broadway stage. Manhattan Theatre Club, Lynne Meadow, Barry Grove and John Legend were some of the producers of this production.                

Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper, regarding “Jitney” having multiple nominations, especially Best Revival of a Play, said, “I’m over the moon. I’m just thrilled. I had a small part in the ‘Jitney’ journey, and when I tell you Mr. Ruben Santiago-Hudson worked hard to get that show up, I mean he worked hard. It took him 11 years; it was an amazing journey. His artistry, his devotion, his talent, all helped. It finally got up there and it’s truly beautiful.”

When Lynn Meadow and Barry Grove came in with the Tony Award for “Jitney” in hand, they were happy to talk about “Jitney.” Meadow explained that Manhattan Theatre Club has a subscription base and people expect to see three Broadway plays, so that’s why the shows have a limited run, even though “Jitney” was extended. She further stated, “I don’t think you’ve seen the last of ‘Jitney,’ especially with all the recognition it has gotten.”

The Tony is the fifth accolade “Jitney” has received. It also received the Drama Desk Award for Best Revival of a Play, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Revival, the Drama League Award for Outstanding Revival of a Broadway Play and a special citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle to director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and the ensemble cast.

Regarding August Wilson and a new generation of theater goers, Meadow said, “I think he’s one of the greatest American playwrights, one of the world’s greatest playwrights. The more that one sees his work, the more one is transported in a way that only theater can transport you. I’m sure August Wilson’s work will be done and done and done.”