Tinuke Craig’s production elevates the hefty writing of August Wilson in Jitney at the Old Vic
“‘It don’t always turn out like you think it is. You don’t always have the kind of life that you dream about. You know what I mean?”
Part of August Wilson’s American Century or Pittsburgh Cycle (which includes Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and King Hedley II), Jitney hasn’t been seen in the UK since its 2001 premiere at the National. And for the first 30 minutes or so, there’s a nagging sense that there’s a good reason why as a sluggish start does little to inspire on the stage of the Old Vic.
But Tinuke Craig’s production knows what it is doing, laying the necessary solid groundwork to make sure really buy into the world of these characters. They are a group of black men who work for an unlicensed taxi service in 1977 Pittsburgh, colleagues rather than friends but united in the desire to make the most of the shitty hand that 1970s USA continues to deal them.
Wilson’s gift for the character study is in full evidence here. Each driver is fully fleshed out in mood and motivation, all pushing and probing at different aspects of what it is to be a black man. The need to modulate the voice to be more ‘acceptable’ to white customers, the struggle to provide for the family, the desperation to make ends meet, the frustration and exasperation all this makes you feel yet knowing the luxury of being able to outwardly show such emotion is not yours.
It becomes powerful and ultimately timeless stuff. Though clearly rooted in the 70s, so many of these concerns remain evergreen – gentrification, the precariousness of work, the impact of incarceration. And performed with such intensity by the likes of Sule Rimi, Solomon Israel and a career-best Wil Johnson in Alex Lowde’s cracking set design, it becomes a towering theatrical statement.