Writer: August Wilson
Director: Tinuke Craig
The Old Vic’s new production of August Wilson’s Jitney is, quite frankly, a masterclass in theatre.
It is rare for a play initially written over 30 years ago to feel this fresh without a clear hook to bring it into the modern day. Tinuke Craig’s stellar production manages exactly this by investing in the timeless concept of community. There are certain elements, not least the excellent visual design by Alex Lowde, which plant the piece about a black working-class community in Pittsburgh firmly in its 70’s setting while themes of gentrification sadly still echo today. However, the most prominent themes of the piece stem from the importance of connection and standing together in times of hardship.
Jitney is a one-room workplace drama following a group of jitney drivers – an old term for an unlicensed taxi driver – and their interactions at the station as they wait for calls to come in. One of the strengths of Wilson’s writing is his ability to overlap multiple narratives whilst maintaining pace. Each character has a clear identity beyond the station and these separate strands of life are woven together brilliantly to give everyone a moment in the spotlight, without the play ever feeling disjointed or episodic.
Craig has put a lot of care into bringing humanity and depth to every role and her investment in each narrative encourages the audience to follow suit. This has significant pay-off in the moments of conflict, of which there are several, which play out like high-stakes tennis matches as each character fights to be understood. A sequence which sees struggling couple Rena (Leanne Henlon) and Youngblood (Solomon Israel) fighting for their future together has the audience audibly reacting as the pair cut each other down to make themselves heard, only to be brought up short by their partner’s equally valid pain.
Henlon also features in another exceptional scene which sees her preyed on by Turnbo (Sule Rimi) while she waits at the station for Youngblood. The unease she radiates, as she realises she is stuck alone with the older man, is instantly recognisable to the audience and, despite only matching Rimi’s monologuing with the occasional ‘mmm’, she is magnetic to watch. The nuance, honesty and understanding displayed in this scene is no doubt owed to having a female eye direct.
The quality of the performances is extremely high and this is consistent across the whole cast, made up entirely of black actors, thanks to casting director Jacob Sparrow. Every performer has at least one moment which is undeniably theirs and not a single beat is taken for granted. One of the first to make a strong impression is Nnabiko Ejimofor as Shealy who radiates suave and charismatic energy from his first steps onto the stage. He is highly entertaining and endlessly watchable as he boasts of his romantic endeavours.
Rimi, as the stubborn and antagonistic Turnbo, quickly establishes himself as an incredibly strong storyteller and is actually one of the most layered characters of the piece. His performance is only rivalled by Wil Johnson as Becker, the jitney station’s owner. Johnson is set up as the protagonist of the piece, opening both acts with a sequence in which he adorns his heavy jacket, nicely mirroring the weighty responsibility he feels as both a boss and a father. Whilst he remains somewhat dormant as the play introduces itself and the various other characters, Johnson soon rears his head with a performance containing so much heart, power, anguish and strength; there is no question as to the star of the piece.
It would be easy, but unfair, to attribute the success of the Old Vic’s newest production solely to the talented cast. Jitney is a triumph of hard work and passion from all creatives involved and that will reflect in every standing ovation the show will inevitably receive.
Jitney, an Old Vic, Headlong and Leeds Playhouse co-production is at the Old Vic from 9 June – 9 July before touring.