Director Tinuke Craig brings an “endearing and heartfelt” adaptation of the classic August Wilson play Jitney to the Old Vic in London. Read on for what we thought of the play.

The Company in Jitney at The Old Vic
© Manuel Harlan

‘Jim Becker’ is proud of the taxi service that he provides for Black residents. Being that the regular taxi businesses won’t take fares into Black communities, his unlicensed business was an essential part of life for the residents of the 1970s, Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is the backdrop for the playwright, August Wilson’s play, Jitney.

It was good to come out of the heat of Waterloo on a hot London summer’s evening and into the cool auditorium of the Old Vic to watch Jitney. As audiences waited for the show to start, popular songs of the 70s helped create the rhythmic sounds of the time; Rolls Royce, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and the like set the tone.

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Wilson, if you remember, is the author of plays that have been successfully adapted for the silver screen, namely Fences (2016) starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), also starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. So…we kinda know what we’re getting with Jitney in terms of character-driven stories.

Leanne Henlon as Rena and Sule Rimi as Turnbo in Jitney at The Old Vic
© Manuel Harlan

The physical Jitney provides the background for the narratives of men who’re eking out a living. We’re introduced to a wide gamut of the human experience through characters navigating alcoholism, ageing, loneliness, womanising, marriage and parenting, to name a few.

Coming in and out of the building after each fare, the drivers wait their turn to answer the one phone mounted on a wall in the room to collect their next passengers. It’s in between this waiting that they each deliver their little slice of African American life of the time. Jitney delivers a kind of barbershop landscape, where clients wait about for their turn in ‘the chair’, each person exchanging their personal brand of masculine bravado as they do so.

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In this slow build, punctuated, Tinuke Craig-directed play, our actors are well cast. They have a delicious rapport between them as they deliver their dialogue, bouncing off each other like butter off a hot knife.

Sule Rimi as Turnbo and Wil Johnson as Becker in Jitney at The Old Vic
© Manuel Harlan

Some of the more visceral performances come from Wil Johnson as the stoic ‘Becker’, as we see him grappling with the loss of his wife, the lost life of his son and the bleak future of the Jitney as its building is scrutinised by property developers. We get a further sense of the ominous outside forces they’re dealing with through the stage design, which periodically reminds us that we’re in 1970s Pittsburgh, via on-set projections.

Leanne Henlon as Rena in Jitney at The Old Vic
© Manuel Harlan

The one woman of the play, ‘Rena’ (actor, Leanne Henlon) enters the environment of the Jitney to remind the driver ‘Youngblood’ (Solomon Israel) of his parental responsibilities. However, ‘Rena’ is presented almost as a party-pooper. Entering with her real-life, real-world activities, she’s come to disrupt the camaraderie of the drivers and the fun their having. Her role is to make a ‘good man’ out of the Vietnam veteran, ‘Youngblood’, when what appears to be dubious activity outside of taking fares, is justified.

Jitney is gripping and engaging from the start, and this is made possible by the top-drawer skills of the actors’ performances. This rendition of the play is endearing and heartfelt and manages to convey the deep affection Wilson had for his characters.  A masterful adaptation of the Wilson script by Craig and her team, Jitney is a must-see play.

Jitney is on at The Old Vic, London until 9 July 2022.

Buy your tickets here.

Written by Jennifer G. Robinson

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