FringeReview UK 2022
Directed by Tinuke Craig, Set and Costume Designer Alex Lowde, Lighting Elliott Griggs, Sound Designer and Composer Max Perryment, Video Designer Ravi Deepres, Movement Director Sarita Piotrowski, Intimacy Consultant Asha Jennings-Grant, Associate Director Prime Isaac, Fight Director Kev McCurdy, Casting Director Jacob Sparrow CDG, Voice and Dialect Eleanor Manners and Hazel Holder. Wigs Hair and Make-up Piranha Barber Academy, Costume Supervisor Kirsty Blades.
Till August 6th (consult touring schedule online)
‘It don’t always turn out like you think it is.’ In August Wilson’s case though, he couldn’t have foreseen his blessing – a word he often uses. Though eighth in his monumental sequence of ten plays covering Black experience in the American 20th century, Jitney was his first, premiered in 1982.
Set in the fall of 1977, presided over by the benign Becker, a nine-strong cast of five jitney (unlicensed cab) drivers, one each of customer, bookie, son and partner struggle for dignity through inter-generational conflict, class and racial oppression; all of which sound insistently like the wrecking ball clanking towards the end: echoing The Cherry Orchard.
After a rapid intro to drivers – the one door opens like a Feydeau – there’s garrulous scenes, several duets, a violent intervention, two climactic moments that drain every nerve. At two-hours-forty the writing and cast never flag. It’s vital the idiom’s clear: most triumph, though some loss of clarity from two or three actors means you have to follow closely.
Directed by Tinuke Craig, this revival began at the Leeds Playhouse in association with Headlong Theatre, transferring with two new cast-members and a further change to the Old Vic, then on tour, arriving here at Worthing Connaught Theatre. Despite elements showing it’s Wilson’s first acknowledged work – slow-burn start, an ending gesture that’s not quite earned – so much of what makes him a towering figure are in place; he revised it in 1996.
Like many one-set dramas, containment works like a slow pressure-cooker. Alex Lowde – who designed costumes too – ensures this rectangular box inside a back-sloping fourth wall, with Pittsburgh-sourced surround video designed by Ravi Deepres simmers the threat and oppressiveness of the outer city. The station has two weeks before the building housing them is demolished. Eventually they decide to fight. The interior with mismatched chairs and pinkish walls, numbers inscribed by the bookie and a perpetually-ringing phone on their left, is all that’s needed. Clothes speak louder than the terminal seediness. Elliott Griggs’ lighting involves a large electric fire, a sad consolation in orange. Max Perryment – quite apart from his wrecking ball and street sounds – conjures a memorable four-bar bass and wild improv conjuring fusion jazz.
Wil Johnson’s Becker takes a while to appear. Exuding a contained authority that’s ready to break out only when needed, Becker’s the model of stoicism and extraordinary graft, slow to fight, often to accept the system, but relentlessly carving out this station over eighteen years. Johnson – new to the cast at the Old Vic – is superb: exceptionally clear vocally, watchful, wholly engaged with someone or blanking them.
He has reason, and degrees of tolerance are wonderfully illustrated. Becker forgives the drunk driver Fielding after sacking him – Tony Marshall’s superb physical sashay of a man pretending not to be drunk is a highlight, as well as his self-pitying, caught in litanic repeats. Becker knows Fielding will starve otherwise.
It’s different with the last character to emerge, Becker’s 39-year-old son Leemore Marrett Jr’s Booster, just out from serving twenty years for murdering a girlfriend who falsely accused him of rape. Becker never once visited him. In the climax to Act One Becker strips away Booster’s self-pity, accusing him of killing his mother who died before his execution date was commuted: it’s relentless, darkly thrilling, sucking out all air from the auditorium. After, Booster tries again, desperate for acceptance.
Responses to Booster a bit earlier are equivocal. We’ve been introduced to Solomon Israel’s winning, warm yet secretive and slowly-riled Youngblood (he was originally Shealey, now more prominent). A young Vietnam vet, he’s aspirational, upright, almost Becker’s surrogate son: the man Booster should have been. And some of the tenderest, if brief scenes are between Youngblood and Becker. Yet his run-in with Sule Rimi’s gossipy, nosey and thoroughly mischief-making Turnbo isn’t one-sided. Turnbo’s already hit on Leanne Henlon’s excellent shrewd yet passionate Rena, Youngblood’s partner and mother of their two-year-old; he tries it on, claiming Youngblood’s having an affair with her sister. And Youngblood had been lying, but for wholly different, honourable reasons – save for not telling Rena.
Yet it’s Turnbo who upbraids Youngblood for taking Booster’s part, ‘served her right for lying’, killing an eighteen-year-old girl. Turnbo’s turning on him ‘That gal you got have a right to kill you cause you lyin’ to her?’ is nailing enough to start a fight and Turnbo to pull out a gun. Wilson’s mastery of paradox and twisting sympathy is here in his first produced play. Rimi’s saturated in character, so much so that it’s difficult to catch his intonation, which others manage. There’s no doubt of his singular effect though.
That’s true of the ensemble. Henlon and Israel evoke between them a couple almost fractured by mistrust making a clear bid together. They know the white system’s against them, unlike a previous generation, are prepared to fight. Wilson’s faith is subtle yet his optimism beneath is fierce.
Geoff Aymer’s Doub, a Korean war vet detailed to shift corpses is the cautious believer in the white man not even noticing enough to be racist. In a layered, detailed performance of dignity you see Aymer’s managed Doub’s doomed views yet gleams with his bid to survive. Nnakibo Ejimofor’s sparky Shealey, full of sexual braggadocio has no stake in the station, but delights in company, bouncing his effervescent ego off the walls. He’s an early injection of energy into an otherwise adagio start. Dayo Koleosho’s Philmore, a passenger who hangs about is Wilson’s first essay in mental otherness: Koleosho’s gentle hesitant character is clearly neuro-diverse, yet somehow breaks through his own carapace at the end to an expression that earns a long hug.
As Becker decides to fight, one senses what might come next, though it’s oblique and leaves us seeing how this station functions as a place of shelter, of shared tenderness, vulnerable men on the cusp of change for good and ill. The first UK production at the Lyttelton in 2003 won an Olivier. Whilst perhaps not quite in that league, this production features some outstanding acting and in any case is necessary, a must-see. It’s also picked up pace. If only the Old Vic, Young Vic or National could between them mount a Wilson a year over the next decade (the National did magnificently produce Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2016), many wish-lists might be shorter.