Set in an all-male, all-black minicab office in Pittsburgh in 1977, August Wilson’s play is a thrilling and vivid slice of history that resonates powerfully today. Five guys bitch and joke around in a dimly lit office, interrupted by tariffs, family members and the occasional flash of rage.
Director Tinuke Craig powerfully evokes a sense of economic insecurity – people just passing through while wealthy whites are ready to vacuum and gentrify their turf. She also nails the swagger and awkward intimacy of men who are colleagues but not friends. Though awkwardly but necessarily confined to a literal box by designer Alex Lowde – this is a co-production with Headlong and Leeds Playhouse, touring various venues – the performances here are superb.
Apparently, the focus is on Youngblood, an arrogant vet from Vietnam with a girlfriend and young child to support, and his nemesis Turnbo, a middle-aged troublemaker who tricks everyone. Solomon Israel is fine in the first role, Sule Rimi outstanding in the second – a loosely-jointed, defiant man.
There’s also a side story involving worthy ward manager jitney Becker (Wil Johnson) and her son Booster, just released from prison after two decades apart, for killing the white girlfriend who falsely accused him of rape. On press night, stunt double Blair Gyabaah navigated this family quagmire of pride, disappointment and anger with considerable aplomb
Recent graduate Leanne Henlon shines in her two scenes as Rena, the only female onstage, highlighting where Youngblood goes wrong even when trying to do well. Dayo Koleosho, who has a learning disability, brings regular passenger Philmore to life. I loved Geoff Aymer’s solid Doug, modest about his own service in Korea in the 1950s, with heartbreaking hope that the younger generations can be anything they want.
The accents are good, the fashions are on point (medium afros and sheepskin jackets: it’s cold in Pittsburgh). Wilson tries to give everyone a place in the sun but doesn’t entirely succeed: Tony Marshall wins as the alcoholic driver Fielding but his story resembles Becker’s. Nnabiko Ejimofor’s number runner Shealy just adds a touch of the illicit and some great dance moves.
It was the first work in what became Wilson’s ten-piece cycle exploring black life in Pittsburgh during each decade of the 20th century. Written in 1982, Jitney has great boldness and a fresh sense of the recent past. It’s also mechanical: the big emotional confrontations come in the middle of workplace conversation like oil tankers snooping through the mist. The ending is manipulative. Craig adds some unnecessary flourishes, especially in the scenic and jazz scene change.
But overall, it is a stunning, richly textured work that is both particular and universal. London saw other parts of Wilson’s opus – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Fences; King Headley II – and recent film versions of the first two have raised the profile of wider ecology.
Craig’s production fills another slice of the pie. Let’s take more, please. And also see Craig tackle a David Mamet game.
Old Vic, until July 9, buy tickets here