Robert Tanitch reviews August Wilson’s Jitney at The Old Vic, London

August Wilson (1945-2005), the great African-American and multi-award-winning playwright, wrote a cycle of plays The Pittsburgh Cycle, covering the experiences of the American black man in the twentieth century. Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

There is a play for every decade Jitney, the seventh play, was last shown in the UK in 2001 in an excellent American production at the National Theatre. Good to see him again in this superb Headlong, Leeds Playhouse and The Old Vic co-production directed by Tinuke Craig.

I have to admit that initially I had a language problem in the first scene and thought I needed subtitles. But the longer the production went on, the more attuned I became to the dialogue. The actors are very physical, using their whole bodies and are verbally skilled.

Wilson makes big speeches and isn’t afraid to educate his black audience on how to behave. Words like respect, decency and pride play a large role in his vocabulary.

jitney is set in the 1970s in the run-down offices of a jitney company (unlicensed) in an area being demolished for redevelopment. The drivers will soon be unemployed.

The boss’s son (Leemore Marrett Jr.) just got out of jail after serving a 20-year sentence for murdering his white girlfriend, who, caught red-handed in the back seat of a car by her father, told a lie (to defend her reputation) and accused him of rape. Marrett is a bit young to play a 39-year-old.

There’s a blazing confrontation between the boss (Wil Johnson, awesome) and his son, who blame each other for the death of the boy’s mother, who didn’t want to live to see him go to the electric chair.

An elderly coachman (Geoff Aymer) who had fought in Vietnam “to clean the dead from the battlefield” reminds a younger man (Solomon Israel, a charmer) that there are many opportunities for black people and that he must hear them stop thinking that “white people are against you” and realize that “white people don’t even know you exist”.

The other taxi drivers include a compulsive troublemaker (Simon Sule, hyperactive) who wields a gun and a raspy drunk (Tony Marshall) who is in danger of being fired.

I hope that the success of Tinuke Craig’s heavily cast revival will lead to more revivals of August Wilson’s plays. When it comes to writing plays, Wilson is on par with Eugene O’Neill.

In America, Denzel Washington has a deal with HBO to bring all ten plays to the big screen. It would be great if a UK theater management company could stage the full cycle over a three year period.

After his run in London, which ends on July 9th, jitney Tour of Worthing, Bath and Cambridge.

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Robert Tanitch reviews August Wilson’s Jitney at The Old Vic, London

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