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The company in Jitney

Theatre review: Jitney

Words by Melissa Blease
Theatre Royal Bath until 30 July

He may own a busy taxi station in Pittsburgh’s run-down Hill district, but Jim Becker has not had an easy ride. 

His drivers (recently-returned Vietnam veteran Darnell/’Youngblood’, gossipy agitator Turnbo, alcoholic former tailor Fielding and easy-going Korean War veteran Doub) are in a permanent state of conflict. Flamboyant Shealy is using the company phone to run a numbers racket. The taxi office base is under imminent threat from developers… and Becker’s estranged son Clarence (‘Booster’) has been released early from prison after serving 20 years for the murder of his girlfriend, who had falsely accused him of rape. But is Becker despondent, or desperate, or downtrodden? No. Because, within his claustrophobic, crumbling environment, he has his own little cadre around him: an group of men who, despite the injustices that may have been thrown their way, dream of and strive for a better tomorrow. 

Set in the 1970s, Jitney is the eighth play in American playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, each one set in a different decade, and each aiming to sketch the Black experience in the 20th century. “I think my plays offer White Americans a different way to look at Black Americans,” Wilson told a journalist for The Paris Review. “They may see a character who is a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at that garbageman’s life, White people find out that the content of this Black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things – love, honour, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognising that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with Black people in their lives.” It’s a beautiful doctrine that’s beautifully represented in all of Wilson’s plays, and one that’s universally relevant today. But there’s one more element that’s enduringly prevalent in his work that he didn’t include in that list – and that is pure, unabashed humanity. 

In director Tinuke Craig’s exquisite revival of an utterly absorbing contemporary classic, Alex Lowde’s compact box set, supplemented by light, sound and videoscapes designed by Elliot Griggs, Max Perryment and Ravi Deepres respectively, creates an intimate microclimate that allows a script laden with compassion, sincerity and perception to take the spotlight. Meanwhile, costumes, wigs, soundtrack et al offer a truly authentic sense of time and place; flared jeans, tight shirts, soul/funk music, and – for a brief moment, at least – dance floor moves that would teach John Travolta a thing or two mean we can only be rockin’ a vintage 70s vibe. 

Above: Tony Marshall as Fielding and Wil Johnson as Becker in Jitney
Above: Sule Rimi as Turnbo in Jitney

For the first 30 minutes or so, we’re waltzing to a smooth, slow beat as we become acquainted with Becker’s ‘boys’, with the idle banter, hearsay and breeze-shooting lulling us into a false sense of security before the play’s core themes kick in. And when they do kick in, Jitney really kicks off. 

Bringing a perfect blend of arrogance, frustration and insecurity to the role of Youngblood, Solomon Israel vividly conveys the emotional battles endured by an ambitious young dad in search of his own American Dream. When troublemaker Turnbo (played to the ostensibly laid-back but clearly super-bitter max by Sule Rimi) pushes the banter with Youngblood too far, the inevitable clash that ensues reveals who they both really are beneath their fast-talking facades. By the time Youngblood explains himself to his sassy-but-sensitive girlfriend Rena (Leanne Henlon), we’re fighting his corner with him, urging him on to upwardly-mobile, suburban success. Similarly, we feel deeply for both amiable, steady, responsible Doub (Geoff Aymer) and the slightly shambolic, good-hearted former outfitter to the stars Fielding (Tony Marshall) – we know that Fielding will never get his former life (or his former wife) back, but we really, really wish he could. 

But ultimately, it’s Wil Johnson as Becker who drives Jitney. Firm but fair, conflicted but calm, internally torn to shreds, he’s a compelling character laden with contradictions, made flesh by Johnson’s impeccable sensitivity to the role of a man who is, at his core, deeply sensitive. But when his disenfranchised son Booster (Blair Gyabaah) walks into his office fresh from jail and in search of reconciliation, the emotional cloak of armour that Becker has wrapped around himself for two decades is thrown off so violently that the shock and tension is as palpable in the audience as it is on the stage, resulting in one of the most powerful 15 minutes of theatre I’ve ever witnessed. When tragedy strikes Becker, it’s as distressing for us as it is for the gentlemen who have relied on their boss as the bedrock beneath their own shaky foundations. 

Jitney is one of those subtly stunning productions that quietly slide into Bath for a very short time and, just as everybody has started talking about it, moves on. Don’t let it move on without you; once hailed, it’s a ride you won’t forget in a very long time. Wondrous and captivating, Craig’s production gets this play’s soul.

Tickets available from the Theatre Royal Bath website: theatreroyal.org.uk

Featured image: the company in Jitney | All photography: Manuel Harlan

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