Jitney review – August Wilson’s subtle dissection of the American dream

Single-location dramas are all about comings and goings, manoeuvring multiple characters and plot lines in the same space. So what better setting than a taxicab office? August Wilson’s 1970s drama weaves together the hectic workdays of a company of African American drivers in an environment where someone is always half in or out of the door.

Jitney sits solidly within the tradition of the 20th-century American work play. At its heart is Becker, the archetypal hard worker. He runs a station of jitney cabs – unlicensed taxis serving the local African American community in Pittsburgh. Flowing in and out of this hub, a series of men try to make their way in the world. But the release of Becker’s son after two decades in jail, paired with the city’s encroaching plans for urban renewal, threaten to shatter this fragile equilibrium.

In Tinuke Craig’s meticulous production for Headlong and Leeds Playhouse, it feels as though we’re simply stumbling upon these lives, eavesdropping on their jokes and quarrels. There’s a lived-in quality to both the performances and Alex Lowde’s set, with its mismatched collection of chairs. Meanwhile, movement director Sarita Piotrowski’s speeded-up, repetitive sequences between scenes suggest the frenetic yet habitual activity of this workplace. These men are practised at the stop-start art of transporting others.

Jitney is the earliest of Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle of plays, and occasionally it shows. There are moments when you can hear the dramatic cogs whirring. Yet it is subtle in its dissection of the American dream from the marginalised perspective of its characters. While older men such as Doub believe in the elusive promise of opportunity regardless of race, a younger generation is scarred by the Vietnam war and chafing against a world that was never built for them.

An excellent cast inhabit these men and their struggles. As Becker, Andrew French has a quiet containment that makes his eventual outbursts all the more explosive. Equally compelling are Sule Rimi as interfering gossip Turnbo and CJ Beckford as frustrated Vietnam vet Youngblood, constantly locking horns between jobs. Above all, Jitney is a character-centred play – one that this production and its ensemble make utterly believable.

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