For most of you it would have been Wednesday, 20th October 2021 but to me it was 1977. The time shift began when my bus failed to arrive and the following one was late. Those of you who were around in Silver Jubilee year will recall that this situation would have been the norm. I think that year’s Booker Prize for Fiction was awarded to the Leeds City Transport Timetable.
The nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ continued when I arrived at Leeds Playhouse where I had gone to see the play Jitney by Pulitzer Prize winning August Wilson set in the same year.
First of all let me deal with the title. A jitney is a private vehicle which transports people for a small fare. It is our equivalent of a private hire car. You can book one to pick you up but can’t hail them like an official taxi. The name comes from the slang for ‘nickel’ as it originally cost five cents no matter what the journey. The play is set in 1977 by which time the flat fare had evolved into the kind of structure we have come to know today.
The action takes place in the confines of a jitney office in Philadelphia which provides the perfect claustrophobic environment to develop the relationships between the drivers and three other characters who call there. There are six drivers including the owner of the firm, Becker, played by Andrew French. He is facing a double whammy of crises as he has been served with notice to quit the premises by the end of the month due to its planned demolition, and the release of his son Booster (Leemore Marrett Jnr) from prison.
The whole piece deals with relationships and communication, or lack of it, between the various protagonists. Becker had not visited his son during the twenty years of his incarceration because he condemned the crime he committed and was devastated by the effect it had on his mother who died within a month of sentencing.
I don’t want to get all smart arsed here but I was 27 years old in 1977 and I believe that to appreciate the play fully some background as to the attitudes of the time is important. Please don’t get me wrong, this play can be enjoyed with no knowledge of post-war American history whatsoever, but the period between Booster being sent down and his release saw a major change in the treatment of black people in the USA, so here we go.
Booster had been in a relationship with a rich white girl whose father was the local mill owner – in this case, being Philadelphia, that would have been a steel mill – who discovered them having sex in her car. He called the police because the daughter said that Booster had jumped in when her car was waiting at a red traffic light and forced her to drive and park up at which point he raped her. He was so incensed that she lied to protect herself he went to her house and shot her dead. He was initially sentenced to die in the electric chair but it was commuted to twenty years. This means that the crime took place in 1957 when segregation was still rife and the mixing of races on even the most innocent of terms was not looked upon kindly. Had this play been set in the southern states there would have been no trial at all as Booster would have been lynched, as happened in many cases. By 1977 things had progressed but discrimination was till rife, and, to make matters worse, the industrial nations were in economic decline with huge rates of unemployment and high inflation hitting the poorer communities hardest.
After that cheery paragraph I think that I should say that there is an awful lot of humour in this play, which lightens the mood but makes the darker scenes all the more potent. The other characters in the play are; Youngblood played by C J Beckford, a young man with a girlfriend and small child who is trying to buy a house for the family; Rena, his partner – Leanne Henlon with full-on Afro hairstyle; Doub, Geoff Aymer, the senior driver who has been there 12 years; Shealy, Solomon Israel, the cool womaniser who is also ‘running the numbers’; Fielding played by Tony Marshall, the alcoholic; Philmore, Dayo Koleosho, a regular customer who works at a local hotel, and Turnbo, played by Sule Rimi who is into everybody’s private life and is the catalyst for most of the arguments which occur. We would call him a mixer.
Being about relationships, there is no plot as such, only the interaction between the characters, usually emanating from the stresses heaped upon them by their personal history, just like everybody else really. As you would expect, the older drivers are trying to impart their worldly wisdom to the younger ones, but as you would equally expect, they don’t take much notice -until the very end.
The other flashpoints in this powerful drama concern Becker’s failure to tell the drivers about the office having to close, a fact which they find out by accident from the neighbouring business, and Tumbo’s fancying of Rena and spreading gossip about Youngblood’s relationship with her sister. This leads to a domestic between the partners and Tumbo and Youngblood coming to blows with a gun being pulled.
Obviously there are references to Vietnam, Korea and World War Two, again because of the time frame, but the sentiments are valid across the decades, it is the mill owner to whom everyone has to turn when they need a job, even though no one wants to work there. The irony being that Becker has, and still does, need his help despite Booster having killed his daughter.
The acting was, without exception, superb. The online programme doesn’t contain any information on the actors but this is a Leeds Playhouse and Headlong production with latter’s website having more background https://headlong.co.uk/ideas/cast-announced-jitney/
The creatives also did a brilliant job. The set was a box sunk into a sloping plane which not only added to the intimacy of the office, but, as the plane was painted white, it could be used as a screen on which to project atmospheric images when there was a short break in the action. When this was the case, the sound was cranked up and fed from speakers around the auditorium which, at one stage made me wonder if there was a scuffle going on in the rear of the stalls. Thankfully there wasn’t.
I would urge you to go and see this production, it is one of the best plays I have seen in a long time, and not only for the nostalgia value. It is very powerful but still has lots of humour, a fair share of pathos and even a punch-up. It does contains racial terms which I am unable to put into print but seem so natural when used in the context of the situation.
Please follow this link so see the full credits. I will only single one of them out, someone to whom thanks is given on the programme, and I only do that as they are in possession of the moniker Rusty Zipper! https://522084-1661659-raikfcquaxqncofqfm.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Programme-Jitney-FINAL-2.pdf
Jitney is at Leeds Playhouse until 6th November.
For more information and to buy tickets – which you definitely should – please go to https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/jitney-2/ By the way, don’t be put off by the running time, it flew past.
The 1977 time warp continued to the very end of the night as the last bus home did not turn up either which meant that I had to travel home by cab. Thankfully it was an Uber and not a Jitney!
All photographs by Sharron Wallace provided by Leeds Playhouse