Headlong, Old Vic and Leeds Playhouse production
July 13-16, 2022; 2hr 35min
Life – like, apparently, white people, according to one character – thinks so little about the characters in August Wilson’s first hit play, Jitney, that it can’t really be bothered to care about the comings and goings of the unlicensed taxi drivers at its heart.
No matter what they do or how they behave, life goes right on by, so they need to grab some of it before it passes.
That’s the heart of the drama in a nutshell, and Wilson’ s self-imposed task is to delineate some of the ways the characters handle things.
Jitney is ostensibly about an unlicensed private-hire station in the 1970s – one of many in the Black district Wilson grew up in. But he uses it like others have used barber shops or bars, as a place in which men gather and their stories are revealed. Late in the final act, the station is threatened with closure and rallies the incumbents, but this is not particularly a play about political action.
Wilson was renowned - especially over his stretch of 10 plays from different decades, the so-called Pittsburgh Cycle - as a writer with a poetic streak, elegant arguments often abrasively stated.
Not so much here. The first play in the series is perhaps the weakest, much rewritten over the years (though the first of the cycle, from 1982, it was the last to be seen on Broadway, in 2017), and presents characters as a mix from which the audience might glean a nugget of profundity, or might just wonder what the fuss is about.
And quite a mix they are, representative of Black society of its time: Vietnam vet Youngblood (Solomon Israel), fiery about his personal life but trying to make his way in the world for his young family; Doub (Geoff Aymer), a Korean vet and the most passively likeable member of the group; Fielding (played by Oldham actor Tony Marshall), an alcoholic prone to getting fired then hired back, a former tailor to Black music stars; Turnbo (Sule Rimi), a jittery type keen on gossip and as likely to whip out a gun if slighted as to let things go, and Shealy (Nnabiko Ejimofor), a bookie running his numbers from the office.
Added to these are Philmore (Dayo Koleosho), a local doorman and passenger, and Youngblood’s girlfriend Rena (Leanne Henlon), the mother of his child.
But the main character is the station boss, Becker, played with great dignity by Wil Johnson, though I question director Tinuke Craig’s decision to have him writhe around on the floor in emotional agony at one point; he just wouldn’t.
Becker is a hard-working man keen for his company to serve the community with cleanliness and efficiency, and personally he is the glue that keeps his drivers on the straight and narrow, as useful members of society.
That’s one reason why he has rejected his son, 39-year-old former jailbird Booster (played by a far-too-young Blair Gyabaah, in his mid-twenties, but who started the tour as an understudy, so does what he can). Booster is everything his father hoped he wouldn’t be: hot-headed and vengeful, just out on early release after spending 20 years in jail for murdering his girlfriend over a false accusation. The trial also led to his mother’s grief-stricken death, so you can understand why dad is a bit underwhelmed to welcome him back.
As you can probably tell from the above, the play isn’t short on incident or interesting characters. The drama unfolds in a series of chats, some funny - there’s a nice one about the relative merits of Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne, for instance – and some fraught (one leading to Becker’s writhing session), though it’s a bit clumsy also, with actors on and off stage by the single door like performers in French farce, clearing themselves out of the way so the next chat can commence.
The problem, amid some fine performances in general and always-moving direction (though the UK cast can’t escape the absence of US speech rhythms), is that like life, it comes to no great conclusion. There is no singular focus or resolution - well, except one occasioned by life rolling along, and one member of the team standing up apparently to take charge at the final curtain.
Info and tickets here