Photographer: Manuel Harlan
Interview with the director of Jitney
From Tuesday 26th to Saturday 30th July, a searing new production of August Wilson’s ground-breaking drama Jitney tours to the Theatre Royal. Directed by Tinuke Craig (The Colour Purple), the cast includes Wil Johnson (Emmerdale, Waking The Dead, Clocking Off), Tony Marshall (Casualty, Life On Mars) and Leemore Marrett Jr. (Death in Paradise, Silent Witness).
Director Tinuke Craig talks about the challenges and joys of sharing the award-winning classic by ‘theatre’s poet of Black America’ - August Wilson - with modern audiences.
Tell us a bit about the themes of the play.
Ultimately, it’s a love story about community and the strengths a community can have – particularly if it’s marginalised; how you are stronger together and how you can strive to change your circumstances with help from other people. People power, I guess.
It’s also about misconnections, particularly between a father and son. A big part of the pattern of the show is things almost working out but not quite making it. This leads to very vulnerable moments between men – sadly still a rarity on the stage.
It feels quite exciting to see their inner sanctum – the jitney office – where they can be themselves and express themselves. This is especially important when the outside world is so harsh; where they have all the traits of poverty and racism keeping them in a position from which they can’t ascend. There’s also a sense of impending doom that’s going to get them eventually, but they’re safe as long as they stick together.
UK theatregoers might not be as familiar with August Wilson as their US counterparts. Can you tell us a bit about him and his significance as one of America’s most important playwrights?
He’s one of the great American dramatists, up there with Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. He has a theatre named after him on Broadway and his plays won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, so he’s a huge deal. One of the things he did that was most impressive was that he wrote ten plays over the course of his career called The Pittsburgh Cycle, of which Jitney is one. Each of the plays is set in a different decade in the same area, famously including Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences. Jitney is set in the 70s but, interestingly, it was the first one he wrote because he didn’t write them in order.
What’s exciting about the cycle is that each play works beautifully on its own, but they also do this amazing thing where they call and respond to each other. So, you get characters in Jitney who later turn up in Two Trains Running. It’s a whole rich world – a tapestry – built by a masterful playwright. He’s a documentarian of the black experience in America in that way. He’s an exciting, warm writer, full of music, full of rhythm and poetry – a very exciting voice.
Why aren’t we as aware of his work as we should be?
Black artists often fall into a place where they get marginalised and treated as niche or ‘special interest’. He fell victim to that, as a lot of black artists did at the time he was writing. His work is also not on the curriculum here, we don’t have the same access to the work, so it’s not put on very much – and so the cycle continues. It wouldn’t happen with someone like Miller. But it feels like a sea-change is happening, that more Wilson productions are making it to the stage. It feels like there may be a resurgence coming, and that is very exciting.
Jitney is firmly anchored in the 1970s. How is it relevant in 2022?
It’s a play about gentrification; about a place that historically belongs to a marginalised community that’s being taken over by a more affluent community. The people who originally lived there are being displaced, which, sadly, still feels quite relevant.
There’s also something interesting about spending time with men – especially black men – in a piece that isn’t specifically about the black experience, which seems important at the moment when we’re considering how we consume media around blackness.
How have you tackled recreating the 1970s without it becoming a pastiche?
It’s partly about rooting it firmly in its location. It’s a workplace drama so we can root them in activity and practice and behaviour – the truth of that transcends what everyone is wearing. We’ve created a world that has the trappings of the Seventies in the colour palette and the shape and the line, but it’s not necessarily a wholesale Seventies that’s been lovingly created on stage.
The costumes are really practical and subtle. We’re not seeing these guys on a night out, so we’re not going full Soul Train. It’s about what’s practical for them to do their work and what would have been available to them at the time.
You also have to take account of how old everyone is. If someone is in their sixties, they might dress like someone more from the Fifties. You also have to think about how old the office is. If it’s been there for 18 years, it’s not going to look like a Seventies’ workplace. If you create a world that feels truthful, it shouldn't feel too pastiche.
You have eight men and one woman in the cast. How have you ensured that the female character has equal weight and isn’t there just as a foil for the men?
It’s been important to me to think about the representation of women in plays and on stage and, particularly, about black women – and how rare that is, for a start. This play is, in effect, about men. For me, when our female character comes on stage we really have to understand what her relationship is to the space. Does she own the space? Does she feel comfortable in it? If not, how can we make that feel about the story and not the actor.
We spent as much time with Leanne (Leanne Henlon, who plays Rena) as we spent with everybody talking about their character. When we did our character work, we did it all together. Everyone was given equal weighting regardless of the size of their character.
We also made a point to openly acknowledge the fact that there’s only one woman in the cast, which is a shame – not that I’m giving notes to August Wilson! Lots of women are mentioned but, like a great many plays of the time, it’s about men and one woman who just turns up. For me, it became about ensuring her character was whole and as real, multidimensional and multi-faceted as possible, so she didn’t feel two-dimensional when set against all these very complicated men we spend most of the time with.
It also felt important to me to have an intimacy advisor around. The men in this particular company are delightful and lovely but, just in terms of best practice, when you have a lone woman in a cast it feels really important to have someone watch over our work. If you try to do a fight scene without a fight coordinator, it won’t be as good. And it’s the same with an intimacy director – they help to make the scene better and more believable.
What conversations do you hope the play will prompt?
There are points in the show where characters have an argument and it’s not entirely clear who you ought to side with. It will be interesting to hear audiences grapple with that afterwards. Are you Team Becker or Team Booster; are you Team Youngblood or Team Rena?
The wonderful thing about Wilson’s writing is that it’s never that simple. You can see how each of them has arrived at the conclusions they have. You’re not sure who’s right or who’s wrong. That sort of stuff will ignite some conversations afterwards.
There’s also the wider aspect of thinking about the history of the black experience in America. And, even though it’s very specifically set in America, it’s as relevant to people here in the UK. These things echo all over the world.
two tickets to see Jitney at the Theatre Royal Bath. For a chance to win, simply click on the link below and follow the steps...
Jitney appears at the Theatre Royal Bath from Tuesday 26th to Saturday 30th July. Tickets are on sale at the Theatre Royal Bath Box Office on 01225 448844 and online at www.theatreroyal.org.uk