Cambridge Arts Theatre – until Saturday 6th August 2022
Reviewed by Steph Lott
Regular taxi cabs do not travel to the Pittsburgh Hill District of the 1970s, and so the locals turn to using jitneys—unofficial, unlicensed taxi cabs—that operate in the community. August Wilson’s Jitney explores life through the lens of a group of Black jitney drivers, each trying to find a way to get by, using the hand that they have been given.
We, the audience, are bystanders, witnessing what happens inside the rundown taxi office, created using a small but very effective box set, designed by Alex Lowde. There is rhythm and a pace to the play, which is almost like a dance. We see time pass within the small office, created by clever use of lighting (Elliot Griggs), sound (Max Perryment) and video (Ravi Deepres). That, along with balletic movement and well-crafted pauses in the action (movement created by Sarita Piotrowski), generates an atmosphere that modulates seamlessly from busy to comic to violent to poignant.
This is a beautifully constructed play and this production of it rightly commanded a standing ovation from the audience. Each argument and flash of violence is counterbalanced with sparks and flares of warmth and humour. Tinuke Craig’s direction creates a show with a rhythm of laid-back ease, contrasting with taut, tense scenes. Tough as they are, and have to be, these men have a softness and vulnerability. The dialogue and accents never grate, (voice and dialect coaches Hazel Holder and Eleanor Manners have done a sterling job) and August Wilson’s writing feels very authentic and real; the richness with which Wilson writes his characters is a gift to any actor.
The whole talent-packed cast gave superb performances. The balance and dance between them is arresting. It is Wil Johnson, for me, as the owner of the taxi station, Becker, that is the star however. Worn out from years of hard work and sorrow caused by his tragic relationship with his son, (played by Blair Gyabaah) and by the loss of his wife, he stalks the stage with an air of heavy fatigue. His use of stillness and poise commands our attention. For me there was something of the matador in his demeanour. In dealing with his estranged son, there is frenzied anger and rage, the culmination of which is stirring and heart-breaking. And then his kindness prevails when dealing with alcoholic Fielding (played by Tony Marshall). It’s a rich performance indeed from Wil Johnson.
Jitney is a window into of the lives and struggles of a group of Black men. Arresting and wondrous, Craig’s production brings this play’s soul.