Set in an unlicensed taxi office 1970s Pittsburgh, August Wilson’s ‘Jitney’ – the first in his great Pittsburgh Cycle of plays – explores life through the lens of a group of Black cab drivers, trying their best to make do with the hand they’ve been given and find a way to get by. First previewed at the Leeds Playhouse in 2021, Tinuke Craig’s exquisite revival peels back the walls of their crumbling workplace, allowing us to enter it as bystanders who have happened to stumble across their little world.
Inside a small but effective box set designed by Alex Lowde, the men gossip, joke and argue their way through existence. But, though the play is firmly set in ’70s America, their conversation has a modern urgency. There’s talk of gentrification: idle office chit-chat is peppered with worries about the local white developers knocking down their block. Some of the men work night and day in the hope of making life better. The demands of work control them; they live at the beck and call of the wall phone.
The beauty of Wilson’s writing is its realism. Each driver is a uniquely constructed individual that bursts off the page. There’s Turnbo, played wholeheartedly by Sule Rimi, the group’s busy body and hot-head who is unable to stay out of people’s business; and there’s his rival Youngblood (Solomon Israel), a man striving to do his best for his family but constantly falling short. The richness with which Wilson writes his characters is a gift to any actor.
And this is a talent-packed cast that would do him proud. Special credit must go to Blair Gyabaah, the understudy taking on the role of Booster – a man who has left jail after 20 years locked away. But it is Wil Johnson as his father and business owner Becker that is the star. Worn out from years of hard work, he stalks the stage with an air of weighted tiredness. Yet, his kindness prevails – a fact that makes his frenzied, anger-fuelled outburst all the more stirring when it comes.
Though there is a handful of baggage in Wilson’s writing and confrontation can appear to surface from nowhere, ‘Jitney’ is still a careful unpicking of the lives and struggles of Black men. Wondrous and captivating, Craig’s production gets this play’s soul.