Words: Simon Button; Image: Nnabiko Ejimofor as Shealy and Wil Johnson as Becker in Jitney at The Old Vic, photography by Manuel Harlan
A couple of critics have carped that the revival of August Wilson’s Jitney at The Old Vic lacks plot. They’re missing the point. It doesn’t need one.
Aside from a devastating tragedy that rocks the audience late in the second act, Wilson’s play is a slow-burn that is all about the characters - a bunch of Black men in 1970s Pittsburgh of varying ages who all work at an unlicensed taxi firm.
It was written in 1979 as the first of Wilson’s ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ of plays, which also includes such better-known works as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences. Each play in the cycle is set in a different decade and examines the mores and morays of the era from a consciousness-raising Black perspective, with Jitney itself centred around the drivers of unofficial cabs (the jitneys of the title) that serve the Pittsburgh Hill District where regular cabbies refuse to go.
As directed by Tinuke Craig in a revival that previewed at Leeds Playhouse last year and embarks on a short tour after its London run, the characters whose strengths and flaws Wilson investigates with the precision of a master playwright are a vivid, unforgettable bunch.
Nnabiko Ejimofor (Shealy) and Dayo Kolesho (Philmore) in Jitney at The Old Vic (Image: Manuel Harlan)
Take Turnbo (Sule Rimi), for example, the gossiper of the group who has his nose in everyone’s businesses whilst insisting “I just try to live and let live”. Or Youngblood (Solomon Israel), who strives to provide a better life for his girlfriend and baby but can’t do right for doing wrong. Or Fielding (Tony Marshall), a loveable drunk you wouldn’t want behind the wheel of your ride but who would be fun to hang out with.
Then there’s Becker (Wil Johnson), owner of the jitney station that is about to be torn down to make way for housing. He’s the guy they all look up to, the voice of reason and kindness, yet he’s unable to forgive his wayward son Booster (Blair Gyabaah) when the latter is released from jail 20 years after committing a cold-blooded murder.
Sule Rimi as Turnbo and Leanne Henlon as Rena in Jitney at The Old Vic (Image: Manuel Harlan)
Wilson’s words, deeply rooted in realism, are a gift for actors and Craig’s exceptional cast all rise to the occasion. Leanne Henlon is the sole female in this man’s world and she’s suitably angry as Youngblood’s long-suffering girlfriend Rena, although Rena herself is an underwritten cypher who exists only to give him a hard time.
The boxed-in set feels at odds with the theatre’s proscenium stage but the 1970s detail (wood paneling, flared jeans, retro radios) is nicely understated, meaning our focus is always on the people, not the period.
And the themes feel prescient. Gentrification of Black neighbourhoods is still an issue more than four decades later and the idea of having to graft harder than ever to put food on the table could be ripped straight from today’s headlines.
Jitney is at The Old Vic until 9 July and tours the UK from 19 July. For tickets click here.