Jitney at the Old Vic
20 years after its last London performance, August Wilson’s Jitney is revived by director Tinuke Craig. Playing at the Old Vic before embarking on a tour, it is one of the lesser known works of the esteemed playwright – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences have recently been adapted for the screen by Denzel Washington. This has undoubtedly reminded audiences of a writer who has always garnered more plaudits in his homeland of America than on UK shores. First written in 1979 and revised by the playwright multiple times, the play centres on black taxi drivers in 70s Pittsburgh.
The cab firm happens to be illegal, with its base acting as a refuge and safe space for the assortment of characters the audience becomes acquainted with. Turnbo sticks his nose in everyone’s business and likes to gossip; Fielding is an alcoholic – stubborn and set in his ways; Doub is a veteran of the Korean war and Shealy, a bookie. Becker, who runs the business, has a son, Booster who is serving time for murder, the two having not spoken since his sentencing. Keeping up?
Sharp and snappy direction sustains audience attention for the two-and-a-half-hour production. There is a great deal to digest, and arguably too much going on and too many people to follow, however, heavy themes are complemented with humour and injections of comedy. Rimi Sule’s portrayal of Turnbo in particular brings welcome light relief. He is also surprisingly melancholic and pensive.
As with all of Wilson’s works, Jitney is a rich character study, steeped in observation. A social commentary of its time and an examination of the Black community, the play contains a multitude of universal themes, such as gentrification, aspiration and infidelity. It subsequently feels relevant and meaningful in 2022.
The cast all excel. They present vividly real depictions of vulnerable men fighting against the system and the many injustices each faces (this is in addition to their own insecurities and vices). Becker (Wil Johnson), however, is of note. The actor exudes a multitude of emotions throughout, holding the room in the palm of his hand. It’s a moving and memorable performance. Special mention should also go to Becker’s son, Booster, portrayed by Leemore Marrett Jr. The actor successfully captures the complexities of someone seeking forgiveness and atonement.
Brimming with warmth and vulnerability, Jitney is a heartfelt, human, life-affirming and important revival.
Jitney is at the Old Vic from 9th June until 9th July 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the production here: