Within a run-down station of an unlicensed taxi service in 1970s Pittsburgh, Tinuke Craig’s beautifully realised production creates a microcosm of defiance and dashed dreams. Part of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, Jitney is an exquisite character study of Black men trying to get by as best they can, in a US set firmly against them.
In big collars and even bigger flares, our motley crew of cab drivers fight, joke and dance. As they’re called away to pick up a passenger, each character who storms in and out feels vividly real. There’s the hungry Youngblood (Solomon Israel), who alters his voice to talk to a white man on the phone in the hope that it will get him closer to securing a house. There’s Turnbo (Sule Rimi), a defensive, childish meddler who can’t sit still for a second without getting involved in everyone’s business. And there is the sweet but curmudgeonly Doub (Geoff Aymer) who wants everyone to get along so he can read his book in peace.
But the star is Becker, the exhausted head of the company, played outstandingly by Wil Johnson. When Becker meets his son again for the first time in 20 years (played sharply tonight by understudy Blair Gyabaah), he’s torn to shreds right in front of us.
Running throughout the play is a clash in the way each man deals with injustice. Becker stands down easily, while Turnbo refuses to let his pride be beaten. But what some see as weakness, Wilson writes as strength; Becker’s kindness is what makes him so enthralling, yelling ferociously at drunken Fielding (Tony Marshall) and then immediately offering him a second chance, knowing just how much he needs the money.
In this way, Wilson undercuts each argument and flash of violence with warmth and humour. Craig’s direction provides the whole show with a laid-back ease, making the distinction of the taut, tense scenes even more acute. Between the raised fists and muttered insults, these men are soft and vulnerable. When the outside world offers them mere scraps, inside this run-down room they at least have the comfort and security of each other.
• At the Old Vic theatre, London, until 9 July. Then touring until 6 August.