August Wilson, who The New York Times described as “theater’s poet of Black America”, is having a moment. Fresh off the success of recent Oscarwinning film adaptations of his plays Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, we are now seeing a return to the London stage for Jitney, Wilson’s workplace drama, which won the Olivier for Best New Play when it was last produced here in 2002. All of this is pretty impressive for a man who died over 15 years ago.
Jitney is set in Pittsburg, in the late 1970s. The action takes place in the offices of an unlicensed taxi – or jitney – company. The jitneys perform a useful social function, as licensed cab drivers are unwilling to travel into predominantly black areas such as the Hill District, where this and nine other of Wilson’s plays are located.
There are three main clusters of story unfolding within the play. The first centres around Darnell, a recently returned Vietnam war veteran who the other drivers call Youngblood. He is trying to surprise his girlfriend, Rena, with the purchase of a house. But things go wrong when gossipy driver Turnbo mentions he has seen Darnell out on the town with Rena’s sister. A second story centres on the fractured relationship between the owner of the jitney company and his son Booster, who has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for murder. Finally, there is a story about the City announcing its intention to tear down the block on which the jitney office is situated, leading to conversations about failed policies of urban renewal.
While Jitney has atmosphere, a sense of place, and social relevance, its most significant shortcoming is its lack of plot. Director Tinuke Craig has put together a slick production, with a filmic set and costumes that are appropriately awful for the period, but there is no coherent narrative line running through the events, and things drag, especially before the intermission. The play consists of a series of largely disconnected conversations, the value of which to the audience depends as much on characterisation and performance as it does on what is being discussed. While issues of substance are sometimes considered, at other times the chat drifts off topic.
Some of these issues also feel prosaic and anachronistic when displayed like this. But the truth is that four decades later, the fact that these stories are being told at all is still quietly revolutionary. The obliviousness of the white cultural establishment is pointed out to the audience, when avuncular Korean war veteran Doub, tells Darnell: “You just have to shake off that ‘white folks is against me’ attitude. Hell, they don’t even know you’re alive.
Jitney plays at the Old Vic until 9 July