Jitney finds perfect balance between humour and heartache

Sule Rimi as Turnbo and Leanne Henlon as Rena in Jitney at The Old Vic

Sule Rimi as Turnbo and Leanne Henlon as Rena in Jitney at The Old Vic - Credit: CAMBRIDGE ARTS THEATRE

Few theatre shows manage to balance humour and heartache as expertly as Jitney, which is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this week following a critically-lauded run at The Old Vic in London. 

Directed by Tinuke Craig (The Color Purple), August Wilson’s (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) ground-breaking modern classic explores the fragile bond between eight men as they live, love and work in a racially segregated, post-Vietnam America.

The story follows Jim Becker and his unlicensed drivers taking the people of Pittsburgh Hill District where regular taxi cabs won’t – healing old wounds and tearing new ones as they pass the time in a condemned taxi rank between pick-ups.

Leanne Henlon as Rena and CJ Beckford as Youngblood in Jitney.

Leanne Henlon as Rena and CJ Beckford as Youngblood in Jitney. - Credit: Sharron Wallace

With the narrative being so fast-paced (reflecting the in and out nature of working in a taxi rank) and with multiple sub-plots weaving together, it’s crucial that each character’s story is given time to develop - which is something that this play achieves with ease.

Veering between light-hearted banter, seemingly-trivial anecdotes and painful back stories, the result is an immersive experience where the audience is made to feel like a fly on the wall; this is further aided by the clever staging, which sees the surrounding outside streets and traffic visualised and represented via maps and buildings on a framed screen.

Aside from the set design, with such a range of different personalities on stage to get to know as well - from the drunk and rambling Fielding to gossip-loving Turnbo - it’s a show that requires your full attention. 

And, despite facing times of struggle and adversity, the unlikely group still manages to - just about - pull together and face their problems head-on, with Becker and then Doug acting as the glue that keeps them together. 

The company in Jitney at The Old Vic

The company in Jitney at The Old Vic - Credit: CAMBRIDGE ARTS THEATRE

Most Read

While relationships are thrown into question, the standout performance comes from Wil Johnson as grieving father and firm boss Becker; his is one of the most powerful, emotional and memorable that the Cambridge Arts Theatre has ever seen.

It’s moments like these that elevate Jitney and give it a somewhat transformative power - with messages of morality brought into question, it may just alter the way you look at life. 

'Jitney' is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday with shows at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.

Book tickets online here