Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Theatre review: Jitney

With Jitney I hit my personal half-century point in August Wilson's American Century Cycle - having seen the plays covering the 1910s, 1920s, 1950s and 1980s, Headlong's production at the Old Vic takes us to the 1970s, and the first play in the cycle in order of writing. The next one Wilson wrote was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and this play shares some similarities in setup: We're in another sunless room with a group of men taking breaks from work. This time it's a cabin that houses an unlicensed cab office: The licensed ones won't go to some of the more dangerous parts of Pittsburgh, which is where Becker's (Wil Johnson) drivers come in. And even they're not willing to stay there too long - one of their mantras to customers who call is "be ready, I won't wait." In between jobs they come back to the office to warm up by the electric fire, and when the phone rings the man who's been waiting longest gets to answer it and take the next fare.

There's a flurry of activity in the early scenes introducing all the characters, but out of the small talk and bickering we start to get an idea of the major personalities and the more serious stories going on in their lives.

At first a lot of this focuses on Youngblood (Solomon Israel,) who's got a two-year old son with girlfriend Remna (Leanne Henlon,) but is rumoured to be having an affair with her sister - a rumour that resident gossip and unrelenting shit-stirrer Turnbo (Sule Rimi) is more than happy to spread. Later the plot also takes in Becker's son Booster (understudy Blair Gyabaah,) who's just been released after 20 years in prison for a murder he most certainly did commit, but which he still insists was the right thing to do, causing a lasting rift with his father. And Becker also has to contend with how to deal with alcoholic driver Fielding (Tony Marshall,) who's been drinking behind the wheel.

Underneath all this rumbles a threat to the cab station itself, as the city council has finally set a date for long-threatened redevelopment of the area: Becker hasn't yet told his drivers that within the next couple of weeks they'll lose the office they work out of, and he hasn't decided whether he wants to find a new one or not. Though not the first thing Wilson ever wrote Jitney is still the first offering in his magnum opus* and occasionally betrays itself as an early work - the plot points sometimes feel a bit forced when coming together, especially at the end of the first act when Becker and Booster's reunion suddenly turns into the big, scenery-chewing speech American audiences seem to demand.

But those scenes that take you out of the moment are rare, and the play's biggest successes are in the subtlety of Wilson's dialogue. His cycle is meant to reflect the black experience in the 20th century† and it does it here without grand plot points built around racism, but with little reminders that race is always somewhere behind the men's situation, from the circumstances of Booster's crime to the slightly off-grid place the cab company occupies in Pittsburgh life. The cast bring the characters to life, with the explosive relationship between Youngblood and Turnbo, which Geoff Aymer's Doub gives himself the thankless task of peacekeeper for, often stealing the show.

Tinuke Craig's production makes good use of the lengthy running time, with only a handful of scenes feeling overlong and the majority rushing by. Trying to suggest a cramped space in a place as vast as the Old Vic is a losing battle so instead designer Alex Lowde gives us a widescreen look into a functional room, a little sliver in the middle of the bustling city that Ravi Deepres' projections conjure around it. I did think the production somewhat fudged the final plot twist - I had to look up the Wikipedia summary to figure out what happened to [SPOILER] and it was was very different to what I'd inferred. But overall this is another strong production to add to the Wilson work that comes to London every couple of years, and continues to make me hope I get to add the remaining five decades to the set.

Jitney by August Wilson is booking until the 9th of July at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photos not credited by the Old Vic website.

*although it was later significantly revised and given a new official premiere, which means that confusingly, as well as being the first Century play in writing order and seventh in chronological order, it's also sometimes referred to as the eighth in writing order

†although realistically it's more like the black male experience; Henlon's Leanne gets a couple of the best lines but is the sole female role with very little stage time

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