Updated: Jul 11, 2022
Irresistibly rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯🍯
August Wilson’s Jitney at The Old Vic, masterfully directed by Tinuke Craig, is a bold and beautifully evocative performance.
It gives you a copious fix of what it means to be a human, that stupendously strange and infinitely inquisitive species obsessed with the great mystery of its own existence. The bee came away contemplating the nature of that mysterious something that’s there inside every human - a soul, a spirit, a vitality, if you will - that inspires resilience even in the face of life’s greatest adversities; that affords one the tenacity to hope, dream and aspire even when the future looks bleak and the odds are stacked against one.
Why is Jitney one of the most strikingly evocative plays the bee has ever seen?
The bee has spent weeks wondering why it liked the play that much. Was it the novelty of the language and culture? The challenge of decoding Ebonics for a non-native? The complexities of race and its inextricable link with dynamics of power, prestige and pain? The depth and richness of detail about each character, affording us a glimpse into their very cores? The emotional intensity of the Becker and Booster interactions, so palpable you could cut it with a knife? The disarming charm of Turnbo’s shenanigans or the terribly melancholy in Fielding’s stories of his wife and life that make you wonder if this man knows, really knows, that the best days of his life are probably behind him?
However, the more the bee thinks about it, the more it is convinced that its speculated reasons are merely instances of ex-post rationalisation, and the real X factor is as elusive as ever. Much like a piece of art you like without knowing why you like it, Jitney probably just hit all the right neurological regions and pathways in the bee's grey matter, so that raw experiential pleasure is antecedent to reason. All the same, humankind is plagued by a pertinacious proclivity to look for reason, explanation or meaning, and true to that spirit, the bee will persevere with this review.
What is a jitney anyway?
A jitney is a cheap transportation service, like a bus or car rental that transports passengers for a low fare. The play Jitney is centred around the lives of five African-American gypsy cab drivers working at a car service station (a.k.a. jitney station) in 1977 Pittsburgh. August Wilson explores African American life in a series of ten plays collectively called Pittsburgh Cycle, with one play for each decade of the twentieth century. Jitney is the eighth in the series, and explores the evolving lives of its motley characters amidst a gentle but powerful gentrification movement underway in their society.
The Old Vic’s stage is fashioned to depict the inside of the sordid-looking jitney office...
...where drivers wait and chat between trips, while a 70s-style wall telephone rings every few minutes as customers call requesting rides. The rugged station, with its plain furniture offhandedly scattered about the room, mirrors the ruggedness of the people who work in it - a red-blooded and restless youth (Youngblood), a recovering alcoholic (Fielding), an old-timer and Korea veteran (Doub), a middle-aged provocative mischief-monger (Turnbo) and their boss (Becker), a troubled and serious old man forever working to preserve his dignity in the wake of his motley staff’s shenanigans and the broader trials and tribulations of the African-American community in the USA of the 1970s.
Jim Becker keeps the peace at his jitney station with such a beautiful and delicate mix of acerbic reprimand and heart-warming compassion, that the bee could have melted into its seat. (Minor spoiler ahead) When Becker's son, Booster, is released from prison after twenty years of incarceration for murder, and comes to meet with his old man at the jitney station, the sheer breadth of feeling exhibited on stage was so colossal and powerful that it felt like an ether, replete with twenty years' worth of pent-up emotional voltage, was flooding the stage, overflowing into the stalls, rising up into the galleries, and inundating the audience's hearts so ferociously that the bee would remember its experience of watching August Wilson and Tinuke Craig's Jitney at The Old Vic for a lifetime.
Watched 19 June 2022 at The Old Vic Theatre, London.