August Wilson is a man who broke a 35-year drought in the production of plays by black Americans on Broadway. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 1984 had the kind of success that had not been seen since A Raisin In The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry which itself was a first when it was produced on Broadway in 1959. From these stark statistics it is clear that Wilson is a major playwright.
Jitney, his latest play to cross the Atlantic, has already been a great success. The current production, which first saw the light of day in 2000, has already played no fewer than six cities in the United States before travelling to the National Theatre. It is easy to see why as not only is it very moving and powerful but the ensemble work very well to create a memorable evening's theatre.
The play is set in a Pittsburgh cab office in the 1970s. The drivers are a real mix of characters and while they feel some affection for each other, they also have the greatest difficulty in getting along. Wilson has created some great individuals who between them epitomise most characteristics of the human male.
Underlying all is the oft-unstated issue of race. A simmering resentment exists and ultimately, most problems are attributed to rich whites. This and the inability of different generations to communicate are Wilsons main subjects.
Not surprisingly after all this time touring, Marion McClinton and his excellent cast work together pretty much perfectly. There is much coming and going from the stage and where the actors are delivering funny lines or breaking tragic news, the timing is always right. The production quality is good overall, enhanced by David Gallo's set design incorporating a suitably seedy cab office with its centrepiece of a derelict sofa. This is placed in front of a backdrop comprising a massive window, run-down tiling and views of three American gas-guzzlers and the mill to which the drivers would be condemned if the jitney business ended.
After an introduction to his five cab drivers and two ageing Lotharios, Wilson then brings in two pieces of dramatic tension. The cab office is condemned as the block is to be turned into housing and the boss's son is about be released from jail after 20 years for murder.
With this material, Wilson creates an excellent drama in which all life seems to be represented. We see the aptly named Youngblood, Russell Andrews, fighting with the great comic creation, Turnbo, played hilariously by Stephen McKinley Henderson. He is a moralising mischief-maker who is never happier than when he can stir. This is only the start of Youngblood's problems, as his girl, Rena, thinks that he is playing around at night while he claims to be doing a second job.
Roger Robinson, who gives a fine performance as Becker, then has to deal with dual problems. First, the battle to save the cab office - which is very reminiscent of that fought by Nell Dunn's East Enders in Steaming - and then the return of his son, Booster.
The most dramatic scenes in the play are those between Becker and Booster. There is a great deal of love but it is well hidden. A combination of macho bravado and the inability to communicate keep these two apart and make the play's ending poignant.
This is a play that combines tragedy and comedy to great effect. It is clear from audience reaction that it has wide appeal. This seems to result from a combination of loveable characters and good plotting.
The National Theatre has done very well to attract this play to London and it is to be hoped that they will persevere and persuade this company to bring other Wilson plays here. They would also do the London stage a great favour if they helped to promote Black English playwrights, of whom there seem to be very few that are making a major impact at the moment.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher