Until recently I was only vaguely aware of August Wilson and his ‘Pittsburgh Century Cycle’ of plays, chronicling the experience of African-Americans in the USA over a hundred year period. Whether this was my fault, or the fact that his work has not been staged as often as his better known contemporaries is moot, but it allowed me to come to this Old Vic/Leeds Playhouse/Headlong production of ‘Jitney’, with a fresh perspective on the stunning opening night for this short tour.
Set in 1977 against the backdrop of declining industrial Pittsburgh, ‘Jitney’ portrays an unlicensed taxi cab company and its drivers, struggling to make a living on the periphery of society. This is a play of subtlety and nuance which rewards the attention of the audience and subverts their expectations of the characters. So, we meet the stereotypical image of black men with Turnbo (Sule Rimi), Fielding (Tony Marshall) and Shealy (Nnabiko Ejimofor) portraying a toxic masculine culture of drinking, infidelity and violence, living a life constantly on the edge of disorder and anarchy. Wilson juxtaposes this hackneyed view with the characters of Doub (Geoff Aymer), Youngblood (Solomon Israel) and Becker (Wil Johnson), sober, thoughtful and analytical men working hard to succeed in a system that is heavily stacked against them. The overlapping individual narratives and fast paced dialogue allow all of the nine strong cast to explore their characters fully, with the personal and political entwining and overlapping in a way that is intensely political without ever becoming sanctimonious. However, even in an ensemble as strong as this, the performance of Wil Johnson is outstanding, Becker is the quiet but dominant alpha male of the group, his mere presence quietens the garrulous group as he enters a room. Johnson builds his intensity slowly towards a stunning confrontation with his estranged son Booster (Blair Gybaah), which electrifies the audience and brings the first act to a shocking conclusion.
In addition to race, the fast paced style allows other issues to be addressed as the narrative unfolds, most notably the nascent feminism of 1970’s America. This is voiced by Rena (Leanne Henlon) who views the attempts of Youngblood to ‘take care of her’ as patronising patriarchy, laying bare the sexual politics of the era in an hilarious scene between the two. The play is as much about class as race or gender, written in 1982, the assumption that the rich simply do not need to care about the rest of society became a credo for both US and UK in the subsequent decade, through the policies of Reagan and Thatcher. Wilson examines this belief and the consequences of its practical application with both tenderness and anger, realism reminiscent of Mamet and Miller (Becker and Willy Loman could be brothers from another mother) in their use of the personal to examine the political.
Headlong and Director Tinuke Craig add further lustre to the production with innovative use of movement and dance between the scenes, strobed lighting and A-Z grid maps projected onto the stage and footage of street scenes give authenticity to the time and locale. Both the set and costumes of Alex Lowde evoke the era in all its beige, fur and leather glory, the set frame being particularly effective in creating a claustrophobic space. This production has me wanting to see more of Wilson’s work, his cycle of ten plays are begging to be performed in their entirety (I’m looking at you, Talawa!), allowing this underappreciated writer the acclamation he deserves.
For me, undoubtedly one of the theatrical highlights of the year to date. Uniformly strong performances, a superb lead, writing with resonance and relevance, a production which is innovative but allows the quality of the writing to shine through. Do not miss it.
Playing until 16th July, https://www.coliseum.org.uk/spektrix/spektrix-events/jitney/
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 13th July 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★