Writer: August Wilson
Director: Tinuke Craig
Reviewer: Lela Tredwell
From co-producers Headlong, Leeds Playhouse and The Old Vic comes this striking revival of Pulitzer Award winning August Wilson’s play Jitney, set in 1970s America.
With passionate performances and stunning aesthetics, this production breathes new life into the first of playwright August Wilson’s The American Century Cycle: ten plays, each focusing on African-American experiences in a different decade of history.
Set in 1977, Jitney provides a window into the world of unlicensed taxicab drivers working in Pittsburgh Hill District. Licensed taxis refuse to travel there so the ‘Jitney’ drivers scrape a living from the gap. Working out of one shabby room, they butt heads, bond, and get boisterously up in each other’s business.
There’s both a mesmerising transience and a suffocating entrapment to the atmosphere created by this production. One that could be seen to reflect Wilson’s own love-hate feelings about Pittsburgh Hill District from where he himself came. The action takes place in a static low rectangular room, set back from the front of the stage. It’s as if we are watching the insides of a match box or an old fashioned television set. The characters dart in and out at the mercy of the unpredictable ringing of the phone that calls them to service. As they do, our imagination goes with them, making this play seem much wider than the four walls within which it is staged.
The box stage sides slant backwards creating a pleasing but also at times unsettling aesthetic. As projections slide across the stage we sometimes feel the walls are closing in. The oppressive feeling is entirely fitting for the themes explored in this play: frustration, persecution, violence, dishonesty, loyalty, power, control and race.
Director Tinuke Craig talks of Wilson’s writing as portraying “A kind of alternative black universe.” Within the microcosm of Jitney, the characters fit with varying degrees of discomfort. Each has their moment in the spotlight to showcase their inner world. With some we plunge deeper than others which feels an accurate
portrayal of different personalities. But whose story is this? Is it the hustling Young Blood (Israel)? Is it the loyal but exasperated Doub (Aymer)? Or is it their tortured boss Becker (Johnson)? Jitney seems to be a story that belongs to them all. It’s the story of Pittsburgh Hill District, an essential slice of it. It also feels like a
story mirrored in many places blighted by inequality and threatened by gentrification.
A powerful cast populates the stage. Wil Johnson’s performance as Becker is astonishing. The contrast created between the carefully composed boss and the wrecked father is exceptional. Tony Marshall demonstrates a real talent for portraying the subtle stages of drunk in alcoholic Fielding. While Geoff Aymer captures our hearts as the lovable Doub. A poignant scene takes place between Doub (Aymer) and Young Blood (Israel) whereby they
demonstrate differing attitudes towards viewing persecution. This touching moment has a father/son quality to it, which contrasts with other more violent intergenerational exchanges in the play, including a menacing scene between Leanne Henlon and Sule Rimi as Rena and Turnbo, which is staged in such a way it can’t fail to make the audience’s skin crawl.
Accompanying brilliant performances, there is a vital authenticity to this production. It is jam-packed with flavour. It’s busy, bustling, and boisterous energy is supported by the rich language, choreography, visuals, soundscapes, and staging. Some scene transitions have a slightly laboured feel but it all contributes to the
pace. At it’s heart, this play explores generational differences, contrasting attitudes to persecution, the myriad of ways of viewing ‘life’s lot’, traumas from the past, and hope for the future.
Becker talks about the feeling of waiting for something good to come after relentless hardship. This concept echoes as the characters hold on, whether that something good their hoping for is a house for their family, a reconciliation with the wife, or some time left in peace to read a book.
We hold on and we hope. We hope for more productions as vital and stunningly realised as Jitney.
Reviewed on 20th July. Runs to 23rd July.