August Wilson is now seen as one of the great voices of 20th century drama, but his poetic works reflecting on the experiences of black Americans aren’t performed that often in this country.
Now Jitney about the trials and tribulations of eight drivers offering low-cost rides in their jitney cabs to a poor community in 1970s Pittsburgh gets a welcome revival as a part of Leeds Playhouse’s new season.
Tinuke Craig directs a strong cast including Casualty legend Tony Marshall who spoke to our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke.
So, what’s Jitney about?
It’s based in Pittsburgh in 1977 and the word jitney derives from the cabs being five cents a ride. It’s for the local community instead of using the other cabs, so it’s people taking other local people shopping and so on. It’s just another form of income for poor communities in Pittsburgh.
And who are the jitney drivers?
It’s run by a character called Jim Becker who has been working at the local mill and is retired. He has an array of characters driving his cabs – we have a Korean war vet, a Vietnam vet, a guy that runs a betting shop from the cab station much to Becker’s dislike. We’ve got myself who plays an alcoholic cab driver, a gossipy nosey parker and just one female, who is the girlfriend of the Vietnam vet and their story entwines within the show.
And the action takes place in their run down jitney station
It’s basically a meeting point and within this place things happen. One of the stories is that Jim Becker who runs it, his son has spent 20 years in prison for murder, he hasn’t been to see him during that time. His son pops into the office and they have a little confrontation.
And when you read the text, you see that this is a safe place where they all feel they can talk about their issues in a way that almost feels like jazz.
Exactly. When I first read it I thought this is very poetic, a lot of the speeches are very poetic. The characters are so well written, each character is so, so different in this piece. The writing speaks for itself, August Wilson’s a great writer. I don’t know why it’s not done more often, it’s a very good piece
Now this is a piece set in 1970s America during a time of great turmoil across the pond, so do you think it will strike a chord with today’s audiences?
I do because another thing that happens is that the jitney station is going to be closed down to be regenerated by the bigwigs. That still happens today in society and conflicts still happen today between father and son. We’ve got conflicts with alcoholism and conflicts between girlfriend and boyfriend. People dealing with going to war, so obviously people who’ve been to Afghanistan, we’ve got someone who’s been to Vietnam and Korea as well. It definitely does resonate, and people will see a lot of themselves in a few of the characters.
This role playing Fielding who’s an alcoholic is very different from sensible Noel in Casualty.
I’ve done a little bit of research and it’s a challenge for me. It’s very different from the character I played in Casualty which is one of the reasons I wanted to be part of it. When I auditioned, and got the part, I was really pleased because I can show a different side of me.
Jitney is still a comparative rarity in being an all-black cast, so is this your first experience of that, and are you enjoying the process?
It’s not my first experience, but I haven’t done theatre for at least 17 years because I was in Casualty for a good 12 years. That cast was quite diverse but it’s a great opportunity to showcase the talent we have in this country. It’s been a wonderful experience for me so far, and I’m very honoured to be part of this production.
Do you think there are more opportunities for black actors?
Of course, there is always work to do but things are definitely improving in the industry. We’ve seen through TV and adverts more diversity that’s been shown. It has improved but there is always room for improvement.
This is your first theatre gig since leaving Casualty but were you surprised how popular your character had become?
I have to admit I was; I call Noel one of the little people. He wasn’t a doctor, and he was an ordinary guy working as a receptionist. People just resonated with the character, they really did, and Casualty were really good giving me great stories to develop. They gave me a daughter, they gave me a mugging storyline, and they felt that the popularity of the character would really hit home when we did the episode about the pandemic.
Noel’s dramatic departure did leave fans of the long running prime time soap a bit bereft.
Unfortunately, my character died, but it was amazing on Twitter and social media how much people did love the character, and they were like ‘oh no, why have you done that?’ We’re going to miss Noel so much as when he came on we either smiled or knew something was going to happen. I was really surprised and thankful at the same time.
But you did leave Holby on a high.
What a way to leave a show as the episode did win a Bafta as it covered the pandemic brilliantly, and particularly the first wave when you couldn’t see anybody, and it was tough for a lot of people. Unfortunately, it still is as theatre was hit really hard by the pandemic, so I do feel blessed to be in this position.
Jitney plays in the Courtyard at Leeds Playhouse from 16th October to 6th November. To book 0113 2137700 or visit https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/jitney-2/