Jitney by August Wilson is at the Old Vic Theatre until 9th July.
There's something about the 70s that I greatly admire. Specifically in the Black British London scene, it has always been my observation that that community - the community of my older brother and youngest aunt - was epic. The 70s encompasses generation X and I agree they were... X to putting up with racism, X to having to conform and X to accepting what was done just because!
August Wilson the writer of Jitney is epic.
He has written a play each decade, specifically dedicated to the experience(s) of African Americans, and Jitney falls under the 70s!
Is there a writer that has done something similar in the UK?
What Wilson is actually doing is tracking and documenting a reality post White oppression using the stage! Asking important questions like;
How far have we come? Has anything changed? How does it effect the family?
In the midst of watching what has changed AND what remains is clues about our progression. Buried in most of his plays is an overarching theme of interpersonal issues between Father and Son; Husband and Wife; Ownership and Dependancy; Them and Us. And I thoroughly enjoy (having watched several of Wilson's plays) how systemic oppression clearly is at the root, intertwines and contributes to the breakdown of most of our relationships.
And even as someone that was born in the UK, watching Black people in the US I relate! As an 80s millennial the introduction of technology meant that even when we may not have been in a city like London and able to physically socialise with people that shared our same ethnic and cultural identity, we connected through RnB music, TV shows like Moesha and racism.
Jitney met my expectations.
It looked at rape - is it rape when the person in power is the White woman not the Black man?
They father and son relationship. The man and woman relationship?
Legacy - is it about parent pride, child obedience, or following tradition?
Set in an old Jitney (cab) office, we are brought into the world of Black drivers. All having different personalities - gossiping, dancing, building, reflecting. All working hard to pay the rent and each demonstrating how they 'deal with' and 'survive in' a system not for them.
Although set in Pennsylvania not London it reminded me of this...
The Black Taxi synonymous with Black drivers.
It reminded me of how it is embedded into both Black and White psyche that when they call, we answer. And how much of our purpose is about 'serving'.
The production had vibe - and I thoroughly enjoyed the stylised scene changes and Jazz backing music, as it added to the 70s, Philadelphian vibe.
The Old Vic Theatre - the original home of the English National Opera, the National Theatre and Sadler's Wells -
A completely different vibe from Sarah Vaughan.
Two out of the three historically being exclusive buildings not just for the Whites but for the Rich.
There's something about the Old in the title and the Vic - a shortened version of Queen Victoria? That makes you subconsciously know as an under 40s Black person that you're not invited. So when I saw that Jitney was at the Old Vic I was surprised...
They usually schedule productions like this at the Young Vic.
Inside of the matinee performance though, watching Jitney on stage were Old Vic's. This was on one hand not surprising as I am now accustomed to not only the types of people that attend theatre matinees due to theatre names and tickets prices. But it also wasn't surprising as it is becoming more apparent to me how 'fascinating' the Black experience is to White people.
I watched as this audience on the surface laughed at characterisations and obvious comical language... but who missed the nuanced layers of colourism, poverty and the disproportionate power in black relationships.
I watched, numb now, to how they seemingly did not get that the play isn't at all about the black experience but about black survival after white oppression. I am 'fascinated' how detached a White British audience can be about White American oppression. Forgetting two major things
White Americans by and large are European/ English in ancestry
The Black Americans you watch are all Black British Actors
I was particularly concerned at their response to a scene between Rena and Young Blood - A young couple arguing over infidelity and the purchase of a house. I'm still not sure if it was the direction of Tinuke Craig and/ or the performance by Leanne Henlon that may have led to a very important scene not landing. Craig and Henlon's focus may have been more about getting the Pennsylvanian accent and 70s style accurate (both of which Henlon did well). However, the scene was met with laughter by the Old Vic audience because of their lack of really knowing the socio-economical structure White supremacy has caused and the historical internal problems black woman and men have in relating to each other because of racism. The response was that Rena (the character) was ungrateful of Young bloods efforts to provide for his family rather than how White supremacy continues to emasculated Black men and masculinise Black women.
Furthermore, the Old Vic's missed the alluded colourism issue embedded in the comparison between who is more beautiful - Sarah Vaughan or Lena Horne.
I just wish the audience was a lot more diverse.
Anything else makes everything else feel like a circus.
This is a great production that demonstrates clearly the African American experience of the 70s. The fact it is an all Black cast is amazing, but it needs more Black audiences to bounce off, as the audience I experienced did not understand how they contributed and continue to contribute to us being seen as servers.
There was one Black Woman character which makes the burden and responsibility a heavy one. Especially because the Black Woman is referred to throughout the play and impersonated. Because of the demographics of the audience this one character Rena has to so quite a lot to demonstrate authenticity but ansi conscious of stereotype!