Jitney is the first of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle.
Ten plays set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where he grew up, with each story taking place in a different decade.
Set in 1977, in a time long before Uber, the story follows a community of Black men who run a jitney, unlicensed taxis which gave the Black community a way of getting around the city. Ironically for a show about a car service, the pace is slow as the text is very dialogue heavy. Instead, Wilson localises the drama within the jitney office, exploring the public and private moments the men share. Alex Lowde’s set explores this public/private divide as it is slightly tilted, reminiscent of a TV set, with projections of maps of Pittsburgh projected onto the set and the bodies of the performers, as an audience member this gave the allusion that we were peering into history.
Under Craig’s direction, the density of the dialogue is deftly moved through and Craig does a marvellous job of making the play less static, incorporating movement sequences, and encouraging the physicality of her cast. This was seen most impressively with Wil Johnson’s Becker who when explaining how his hopes and dreams for his son have been dashed, eviscerates himself onstage, beating himself and falling to the ground. Johnson, a standout in Talawa’s Running with Lions continues to shine in this production, morally firm as the father to his son Booster and father of the jitney office.
The dialogue does indeed shine in two-hander scenes notably when Becker and Booster meet for the first time in 25 years after Booster (played by understudy Blair Gyabaah) murdered his white girlfriend who accused him of raping her. Gyabaah did a commendable job, leaning into the slightly infantile nature of Booster who has spent most of his adult life in prison. Here, Wilson’s skill as a writer is exhibited as both sides of the argument are presented without judgement, allowing for the audience to unpick its complexities.
With Craig’s interpretation of the text, each cast member has been given an opportunity to shine: Solomon Israel’s Youngblood and Sule Rimi’s Turnbo in both their individual and joint scenes, are magnetic, Tony Marshall captures the attention with his ‘golden ladder’ story and Aymer, Koleosho and Ejimofor’s insertions in scenes, provide a welcome change in tone. Through his characters, it is great to see this range and variety of Black men onstage. Lowde’s gorgeous costuming also allows for further distinguishing between the men, who wear flares, turtle necks and leather.
Written in the late 70s after the Vietnam War, elements of the play do feel of its time, specifically the lack of development of the only Black woman in the show, Rena. Played by seven methods of killing kylie jenner’s Leanne Henlon, we don’t find out much about her aside from a relationship with Youngblood and her son, Jesse. Henlon, however, does a beautiful job of giving her character a firm place in this world, and the last scene with Youngblood is as tender as it is comical.
The themes of the play do stretch out beyond its time period, with topics like gentrification being widely important to our world now, even though its threat does feel too wrapped up neatly here. Similarly as commented on with Jeremy O.Harris’ ‘Daddy’, seeing these Black American stories told with equal parts warmth and bite, does make me yearn for stories that look at racism and gentrification through a Black British lens rather than at a distance. This, however, is the first time in two decades that Wilson’s work has been put on a London stage, which is worthy of recognition in itself and Craig’s production is certainly a worthy tribute to a writer often considered as the father of Black American theatre.
Jitney ran 09 Jun–09 Jul 2022 @ The Old Vic Theatre