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Theatre Review Choosing to thrive not just survive

MAYER WAKEFIELD recommends a 1970s US theatre classic that has lost none of its relevance

Jitney
Old Vic

AUGUST WILSON’S Jitney is unique within his American Century Cycle as the only one of the 10 plays to be written and performed in the same decade – the 1970s.

But as with most of them, it’s set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson was raised, on this occasion in an unlicensed cab rank owned by Jim Becker (Wil Johnson) where all the action occurs.

It’s an office buzzing with activity as Wilson’s patchwork of nine personalities orbit in and out, taking on journeys in an area where official taxis refuse to go. Despite that, the city authorities want to “tear down the whole block” and replace it with new housing. They are given just a few weeks’ notice before they must close. It’s a now familiar tale which will resonate with many in modern Britain.

The earnest Becker is grappling with his life choices as his son Booster, played valiantly on press night by understudy Blair Gyabaah, returns from Western State Penitentiary. Their first interaction on his return is a breathtakingly intense finale to the first act.

As with every single one in this series of vignettes, it gives us a heartfelt glimpse into a community which is choosing to thrive not just survive in the face of racism, poverty and social upheaval. While a sense of doom hovers above, they choose solidarity to keep it at bay.

Wilson provides so much for the actors to get their teeth into and this cast just chew right through it, with some astounding individual performances.

The magnificent Sule Rimi, as the sad office gossip Turnbo, is so thorough in his portrayal that just watching his feet move is a sight to behold. On the flipside the caution and empathy of Doub radiates from Geoff Aymer’s turn in which he delivers what must be one of the most moving anti-war monologues ever written.

Meanwhile, Tinuke Craig’s exhilarating direction manages to weave Wilson’s patchwork perfectly, maintaining the breakneck speed required to keep the audience hooked.

With Wilson’s cycle being brought to the screen by Denzel Washington and HBO, this revival — a co-production with Leeds Playhouse and Headlong — is a reminder that the best place to see his work is undoubtedly live on stage.

Runs until July 9 2022. Box office: https://www.oldvictheatre.com/

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