Jitney, Bath Theatre Royal

AMERICAN playwright August Wilson wrote a cycle of ten plays about his home city of Pittsburg, and Jitney was the first written, and the last performed.

It is set in the early 1970s in an area of the city where licensed taxis didn’t venture, so was served by unofficial “jitneys”. The action takes place in the office of Becker’s “Car Service”, where men wait for the ring of the phone on the wall and head out to pick up their fares.

Like all Wilson’s plays, it weaves compelling and equally balanced stories, drawing a picture of real life. Tinuke Craig’s production for Headlong, Leeds Playhouse and the Old Vic, with its set by Alex Lowde, perfectly captures the period and atmosphere of the piece, and if the quick-fire exchanges in an unfamiliar accent took a bit of getting used to, it was more than worth paying extra attention.

In this run-down part of town, the council has been promising to redevelop for years. In other similar locations they have closed businesses and boarded up buildings, only to wait for years to proceed.  When the news comes that Becker’s jitney depot is about to be closed, he and his drivers decide to sit it out.

Each of the seven drivers has his own story. Becker’s is about his son, newly released from a 20-year stint in prison for murder.

Jitney is about love, community, loyalty, hope and opportunity, and faulty communication. This brilliant company – Wil Johnson as the dignified Becker, Blair Gyabaah making a stunning professional debut as his son, Sule Rimi as the interfering and disruptive Turnbo, Solomon Israel as the aspirational Vietnam vet and Leanne Henlon as his girlfriend, together with Tony Marshall, Geoff Aymer, Nnabiko Ejimofor and Dayo Koleosho, paint a vivid picture of the lives of a group of friends and colleagues, with all their petty jealousies and deep loyalties.

Fences is another of Wilson’s series. Jitney makes you want to see the others to learn more about how the America of today has evolved.

The Bath audience was strange. Some left at the interval, many more whooped and hollered with delight and appreciation, leaping to their feet for the now unremarkable standing ovation.  I think Jitney is well worth the journey for anyone who loves theatre.


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