Jitney

August Wilson
Leeds Playhouse and Headlong
The Courtyard, Leeds Playhouse

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Tony Marshall, Sule Rimi, Andrew French and Geoff Aymer in Jitney Credit: Sharron Wallace
Tony Marshall and Leemore Marrett Jr in Jitney Credit: Sharron Wallace
Leanne Henlon and CJ Beckford in Jitney Credit: Sharron Wallace

Director Tinuke Craig describes this as a play about ‘people power’. Not only does this production bear witness to the strength of community that Craig is referencing, but it also reminds us of just how powerfully dialogue-driven storytelling and compelling characters can draw you in.

A ‘jitney’ is an unlicensed taxicab, in this instance operating in the Pittsburgh Hill District, where licensed services refuse to travel. The whole of August Wilson’s tightly-crafted play takes place in the office of one such company, where we see drivers come and go, answering the phone with a succinct ‘car service’, and taking fares and occasional personal calls.

From the get-go, this simple structure enables the introduction of a varied cast of characters in endlessly shifting patterns. Sometimes, we see the men sitting and waiting, occasionally passengers or other characters will wander in through the set’s one door, and throughout, the ringing of the phone measures the beats of their day.

It takes a while before we start to gather the nuances of the men’s interactions, or even their names, and Wilson’s script presents us with an opening flurry of drivers coming and going without much to cling to in terms of plot. But this surefooted production matches the text’s confidence and craft, and from the outset this atmosphere draws us into eavesdropping on a day in the life of the small micro-community within and around this one room. Even the differing manner in which the men respond to the calls starts to reveal their characters, and the story gradually establishes itself with similar subtlety and concision.

Originally written in 1979, only a couple of years after its setting, the play was later reworked extensively by Wilson; due to this and its setting, it might be classed as one of the later in his ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’, which also includes Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Wilson, chronicler of black America over the expanse of the 20th century, here turns to generational divides and points of unity across the schisms of the Vietnam war, gentrification, economic decline and the segregation of the African-American community.

Craig’s production captures this with compelling clarity and focus. On a set which constrains the actors to almost televisual flatness, the performances draw on economy of movement and speech, with every gesture and inflection loaded with meaning. There are no false notes, no wasted gestures in the performances.

The whole play is a dense web of different strands, each forming part of the strong picture of this community that emerges. One such strand is the growing conflict between Youngblood (C J Beckford) and Turnbo (Sule Rimi). Youngblood is a young Vietnam veteran who now professes to be trying to establish a solid family life with his girlfriend Rena (Leanne Henlon), while Turnbo is an older man who fills his day with endless chat, meddling in others’ business and spreading gossip and scandal.

Another element of the plot shows station boss Becker (Andrew French) facing the prospect of closure due to the city planners’ decision to redevelop the area, while also trying to manage the interpersonal and individual stresses of the men who drive for him.

A central question of the play is how Becker will respond to the release of his son, Booster (Leemore Marrett Jr), from a lengthy prison sentence: can the father and the son be reconciled after the latter strayed so far from the fold? Indeed, Becker is a father to all the men, including Fielding (Tony Marshall), an alcoholic who has already lost one career as a tailor and now risks losing his job driving jitneys as well.

This expertly-drawn set of characters, and the care and conflict we witness between them, is at the heart of a remarkable piece of theatre. It is unshowy, despite a couple of superb uses of music and some atmospheric projections during interludes between scenes. What impresses is the power of the writing, performances and direction, and the span of human life that is encompassed in just one small office space. Highly recommended.

Reviewer: Mark Smith