Writer: August Wilson
Director: Tinuke Craig
Sound Designer and Composer: Max Perryment
August Wilson may not be a household name to a British audience but the Leeds Playhouse and Headlong production of Jitney proves that he is a writer of great stature and innovation. In fact his plays Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences have recently been adapted into Oscar-winning films. Known as ‘the theatre’s poet of Black America’ Wilson is also a two-time winner of the Purlitzer Prize for Drama.
Alex Lowde’s set design is very down to earth: a taxi rank with a few chairs, an electric fire and a phone that binds the action along with a much-abused door. It is set in Pittsburgh Hill District in 1977 which is conjured up vividly by sound designer and composer Max Perryment.
The entire ensemble provide dynamic and profound performances as ‘jitney’ taxi drivers, many in competition and personality clashes as well as facing life issues of the era. This includes alcoholism, trying to further their social status, romantic and father-son relationships and the gentrification of their black stronghold.
Andrew French, well-known to Playhouse audiences for his roles in Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy, Zodwa Nyoni’s Boi Boi is Dead and The Jungle Book, plays Becker, the manager of the taxi firm who tries to steer his company successfully despite the disputes and tirades throughout. His son Booster, played by Leemore Marrett Jr, is released from the state prison following a 20-year stretch for murder. The father and son roles are played with verve and veracity and both characters win our hearts for their realism and grittiness.
The marital difficulties faced by Youngblood and Rena, performed superbly by CJ Beckford and Leanne Henlon, are at first seemingly insurmountable but eventually resolved. And Rena’s bouffant hair is almost a character in itself! It sees Youngblood desperately chasing the American Dream to impress his girl, which his colleagues seriously admire in him.
Director Tinuke Craig really brings out the best from the cast with quite a lot of ferocious violence as well as some more tender moments. The switching of characters is done seamlessly and the interaction – often made up of conflict without resolution – is incredibly visceral, with the tension and dramatic interest never floundering. The script shamelessly includes the dreaded ‘N Word’, used teasingly rather than offensively exactly the way such characters would.
The mood of the piece flashes from clowning and tomfoolery, such as in the classic 70s dance scene, to intensely serious moments. We really feel that we know the characters inside and out: their motives, fears, hopes and desires for all to see. The ensuing empathy keeps the narrative fast-paced and totally belies the 2 hours and 45 minutes running time. A skilful blend of social realism and theatrical set pieces that is as delightful as it is daring.
Runs until 6th November 2021