Posts Tagged ‘American Century Cycle’

August Wilson wrote a series of ten plays between 1982 and 2005 covering the black American experience in each decade of the 20th Century, all bar one set in his home city of Pittsburgh, most in the Hill District of that city. They are now known as the American Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle. Jitney was the first to be written, covering the 1970’s. It visited the NT twenty-one years ago, winning the Olivier Award for Best New Play. This is the first time we’ve seen it in London since, in a home grown production.

A jitney is an unlicensed cab serving communities licensed cabs won’t cover. The play is set in the office of one such service, run by well respected Becker. The drivers include recent Vietnam vet Youngblood, older Korean vet Doub, drinker Fielder and Turnbo – a gossip and a stirrer. Shealy runs a betting business from the office and Philmore, hotel doorman and frequent passenger, is a regular visitor. With the backdrop of gentrification (the office is about to be demolished), there are two main stories – Becker’s son Booster’s release from prison and Youngblood’s determination to buy a house for his wife and child.

It takes a while to take off, with a lot of scene-setting and character introductions, and it could do with losing 20 minutes or so, but there’s no doubting the quality of the writing and its importance as a modern classic. Tinuke Craig’s production and Alex Lowde’s uber realistic design give it real authenticity and the ensemble is simply terrific. Yet again an understudy, Blair Gyabaah playing Booster, rises to the challenge with an impressive professional stage debut. There isn’t a weak link in this outstanding cast.

Great to see it again, and in such a good production.

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I’m not sure we’ve seen this 7th play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle in the UK before; if so, it certainly passed me by. Each play represents the African American experience in one decade of the 20th Century, this one the sixties. They are all set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, from where Wilson himself hails, this play in Lee’s Restaurant, owned by a character called Memphis.

It’s 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement is very active, there are regular clashes as the police target the black community and Pittsburgh’s urban renewal is displacing black families. All this is happening outside Memphis’ establishment, which is itself threatened by compulsory purchase for development. Apart from Memphis and his assistant Risa, we meet two black businessmen, the very successful local undertaker and property owner West, and Holloway, whose business interests are less clear. Homeless man Hambone, hardy able to communicate, drifts in and out, as does Wolf, who runs an illegal betting business using the diner’s phone. Wheeler-dealer Sterling, recently out of prison, makes a play for Risa, befriends Hambone, does deals with Memphis and bets with Wolf. In many ways, he’s the heart if the play.

There’s less plot and character development than Wilson’s other plays. It’s more of a social history, though of a fascinating period close enough to resonate. It’s like seven lives converging inside the restaurant, with events outside a backdrop, and there’s a tragic but very satisfying and defiant conclusion. I struggled to engage with the first half’s overlong eighty minute scene setting, but the second half was much better, though I don’t think it’s amongst the best of the cycle, despite the ripeness of the period. I also struggled catching all of the dialogue, as the emphasis was on authenticity more than clarity. Frankie Bradshaw’s design is terrific, a realistic diner with an impressionistic city backdrop and a symbolic wrecking ball, and director Nancy Medina has repaid the trust of the judges of the RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award with a fine production. It would be invidious to single out any individual in this very fine cast; the seven performances are uniformly excellent.

I’m getting fond of these afternoon trips to Northampton,where so much quality drama now originates. Co-produced by ETT, this one also gets to be seen in six other towns and cities. Get to one of them!

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