Jitney: a ride to the American Dream
“You don’t always have the kind of life that you dream about. “
Jitney is the only one of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of ten plays to have been written in the decade in which it is set and, as his first, wasn’t yet part of the cycle. Wilson did not write them in chronological order and one look at the production photos and you’ll see the distinctive Afro hairstyles of the 1970s and some flamboyant clothing. Jitney wasn’t given a Broadway production until 2017, despite being written in 1979. In the early 1980s, August Wilson took his mother to see the play riding to the theatre in Pittsburgh in a Jitney.
A Jitney is cheap and unlicensed public transport with a price bracket affordable to that minority of Americans who do not own a car, but also illegal. This play is set in the Jitney office of Becker (Wil Johnson) where the public phone up for a car and the drivers wait for a job. Licensed, regular taxis refuse to travel to this largely black area. It is in the run down area of Pittsburgh’s Hill District where August Wilson grew up, and is of course about the American Dream and its disappointment.
Despite being written and set 45 years ago, the characters in Jitney are timeless and so are their concerns and interactions with others. One, Youngblood (Solomon Israel) has just returned from army service in Vietnam and is trying to get his life on track. He is holding down three jobs in an effort to buy a house in a better area for his family. His girlfriend Rena (Leanne Henlon) is feeling neglected. She is mother to Youngblood’s small son Jesse.
Fielding (Tony Marshall) is a tailor and recovering alcoholic who still has a problem with alcohol. He is now a driver. Becker runs the company and receives payment from each driver. His rules are: 1. No overcharging; 2. Keep car clean; 3. No drinking; 4. Be courteous; 5. Replace and clean tools; displayed clearly on the office wall.
Shealy (Nnabiko Ejimofor) is a jitney customer and a wheeler dealer, running the numbers, an illegal betting operation. Turnbo is an older driver and malicious gossip with a grudge against Youngblood.
The event they all wait for is the return of Becker’s son, Booster (Leemore Marrett Jr, but understudied the night I saw by Blair Gyabaah) after serving 20 years in prison for the murder of his white college girlfriend after she falsely accused him of rape.
Becker is full of resentment after the effort he put into giving the boy the best education and the effect on the family of Booster’s incarceration. Adding to everyone’s grief is the threatened demolition of the jitney base as a part of urban renewal but because the taxi service is illegal no relocation is planned
The performances are outstanding. Becker’s kindly and reasonable nature furiously disturbed by anger at his son from Wil Johnson; Sule Rimi’s stirring to cover up his own insecurity and Solomon Israel as Youngblood trying to do the right thing, being misunderstood, and in a nod to the war between the sexes, his desire to create a good surprise making his girlfriend feel left out. You can’t win! There is humour and intensity. I was also impressed by Tinuke’s Craig’s natural direction
These themes make Jitney not just about a black neighbourhood being torn apart but the stresses on people trying for happiness and the American Dream. It is the kind of play which shouldn’t have been ignored by Broadway for 40 years and it will stay with me.
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Tinuke Craig
Leemore Marrett Jr
Director: Tinuke Craig
Designer: Alex Lowde
Lighting Designer: Elliot Griggs
Composer and Sound Designer: Max Perryment
Video: Ravi Deepres
Movement: Sarita Piotrowski
Fights: Kev McCurdy
An Old Vic, Headlong and Leeds Playhouse Co-Production
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes including an interval
Booking at the Old Vic until 9th July 2022
then touring to
13th to 16th July 2022
Worthing Theatres and Museums
19th to 23rd July 2022
Theatre Royal Bath
26th to 30th July 2022
Cambridge Arts Theatre
2nd to 6th August 2022
London SE1 8NB
Tube/Rail : Waterloo
Telephone: 0344 871 7628
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Old Vic
on 17th June 2022