Tag Archives: August Wilson

“Jitney” at the Old Vic Theatre

August Wilson’s great play gets a good revival under the directorial guidance of Tinuke Craig. Set in the office of a taxi company (the cars give the play its name) the piece is a close look at a community, full of emotion and drama.

The co-op business is headed by the admirable Becker (Wil Johnson) who is struggling to keep the premises open and about to meet his son who has just been released from prison. Old-time drivers struggle with drink (leading to a sensitive performance from Tony Marshall) or their past, while in conflict with a younger generation. Arguments between the gossiping Turnbo and the aptly named Youngblood are a highlight and make strong scenes for Sule Rimi and Solomon Israel. In all cases, Wilson’s characterisation is impeccable.

Unlike the writing, the performances are uneven. Some scenes feel more rehearsed than others. It’s an odd fault but Johnson – who is outstanding – possesses considerably more confidence than his colleagues which leads to uncomfortable moments. Johnson’s is a performance not to be missed as he portrays his character’s dignity and trauma with considered attention and intense passion. The production sags after Becker and Johnson finally leave the stage.

The play’s 1970s Pittsburgh setting is evoked in costume design and video projections (strong work from Alex Lowde and Ravi Deepres). But the period feel doesn’t always come through in performances – accents are hit and miss and the odd declamatory moment jars.

The production works from firm ground though. There’s an excellent balance between humour and darker moments that shows the writing’s sense of rhythm. And some serious thought-provoking antagonism as younger characters – Becker’s son especially – are told to take responsibility for their lives. Wilson draws us into the characters’ complex lives with consummate skill and Craig’s calm understanding of script’s strengths ensure the revival’s overall success.

Until 9 July 2022


Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the National Theatre

Part of August Wilson’s decathlon of plays about race relations in America, this 1982 work is set in a 1920s Chicago recording studio. While the titular diva, known as the mother of the blues, fights with her manager and producer over adapting her signature song into a modern jazz style, her backing band’s members reveal personal and political tensions of their own.

It could be heavy stuff. Yet, by setting up plenty of laughs and endearing characters, Wilson’s play is hugely entertaining. Most impressively, by showing how racism infuses – indeed poisons – lives, the politics here are as emotive as they are educational. The segregated society the play is based in takes some getting your head around – the gap between races so fundamental – but showing how the players take it for granted has a humbling effect.
If the play has a failing, it’s that you can’t – and don’t – get enough of Ma Rainey. A flaw compounded by the fact that the excellent Sharon D Clarke takes the role. Written relatively thinly, the motivation behind her often-amusing artistic temperament is portrayed confidently and certainly makes you think. But with a voice this strong, it seems downright foolish not to get more music out of Clarke.

Impeccably directed by Dominic Cooke, Ultz’s design creates a sound booth aloft and a basement room that the band rehearses in. The feeling is sparse, almost wasteful given the size of the Lyttleton stage, but the claustrophobia is fitting enough. In a narrow space a quartet of excellent performers carefully reveal frequently harrowing stories from the boys in the band.

O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati
O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati

Giles Terera and Clint Dyer make a great double act as long-standing friends who play together. O-T Fagbenle has the star part as Levee, a talented, troubled and ambitious youngster, who embodies the power of new music – jazz. A tough call, we have to take Levee seriously while laughing at him quite a bit and Fagbenle manages this balance well, skillfully revealing the character’s tragic background. Lucian Msamati’s philosophising Toledo wants to open the eyes of his illiterate colleagues. Exquisitely delivering the most didactic of lines, he deserves our applause – our affection for him paying off with the play’s startling, tragic, conclusion. The impact and legacy of racism is clear here, making the play still frighteningly apposite.

Until 18 May 2016


Photos by Johan Persson

“Fences” at the Duchess Theatre

A new production of August Wilson’s play Fences opened at the Duchess Theatre last night following a successful run in Bath that has already earned it strong reviews. A family drama, set in Pittsburgh in 1957, it focuses on the patriarch Troy Maxson, a fascinating creation, depicted by Lenny Henry in a performance that is not to be missed.

Now well established as a serious actor, Henry gives a thoughtful, hard-working performance that plumbs the depths of this unsympathetic character. Troy is almost a tyrant, sometimes despicable, but his determination to turn his life around after time in jail, and awareness of his responsibilities makes you grudgingly respect him. Henry brings out the man’s vulnerability, and deals superbly with Wilson’s wry humour – Troy is charismatic and imminently watchable.

Troy is also an ordinary, working class, man. His struggles and aspirations provide the insight into African-American experience Wilson dedicated his work to. A talented sportsman who feels racism prevented his career, Troy is a disciplinarian driven by disappointment. Relations with his sons (played admirably by Peter Bankolé and Ashley Zhangazha) are on a knife-edge. More complex still is that with his disabled brother, a veteran with religious delusions, an enigmatic part played with conviction by Ako Mitchel.

Wilson’s play feels strangely timeless. It was written in 1983 yet sits well alongside Miller, even O’Neill; all three American greats wrote works that are hefty, lengthy and never afraid of metaphors. Although director Paulette Randall could pick up the pace at times, the production is a quality affair with a serious tone that earns respect.

The heart of the play is strong enough to keep it very much alive, embodied by the role of Troy’s wife, Rose. In this part Tanya Moodie gives a tremendous performance, formidable yet bowed by Troy’s force, Rose’s plight and passion are truly moving. As her husband’s legacy is examined in the final act, it’s Rose you really want to hear from. Wilson leaves you wanting more – a sure sign of success.

Until 14 September 2013


Photo by Nobby Clark

Written 27 June 2013 for The London Magazine