Alex Fice speaks to Geoff Aymer ahead of his appearance in Cambridge Arts Theatre’s Jitney – a tale of love and
loss in racially segregated, post-Vietnam America
The stomping ground of seminal playwright August Wilson, Pittsburgh’s Hill District is the steely backdrop to Cambridge Arts Theatre’s latest show – Jitney. Elusive in origin, this slang term refers to the unlicensed cab drivers in US cities that used to offer cheaper fares to those who couldn’t afford official taxi services. Written in 1979 and set in the 70s, Jitney is considered Wilson’s first ‘real’ play, and centres on the relationships between five cab drivers and four supporting characters, with intermingling generations both jaded and hopeful about what the future holds for African Americans in the US.
“It’s set against the backdrop of impending gentrification,” explains Geoff Aymer, who plays Doub – one of the cab drivers and a Korean War veteran. “A lot of the area is being boarded up, so the place they work – and a lot of others nearby – is being threatened with closure, which creates a certain uneasiness. Are they going to do anything about it; do they have the power to stop it?
“The theme of gentrification is pertinent now because it seems to be happening everywhere – not just in the US. I live in Hackney, which used to be a very low-income area once upon a time, and I’ve watched it undergo a dramatic transformation over the past 15 years or so. On the one hand, it’s a good thing because we now have a lot of nice shops, but on the other, it means ordinary working people can no longer afford to live there.”
Uncertainty caused by gentrification lingers in the air throughout the play, as characters come and go between shifts, leading to amusing, thought-provoking and impassioned interactions with each new arrival. Underlying tensions soon bubble to the surface, leading to dramatic climaxes that will tear you from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other in a matter of minutes. A heart-wrenching finale leaves audience members with an especially poignant message, says Geoff: “If you’ve got something important to say to those close to you, or if there’s been a falling out with somebody you love, don’t wait too long before you make up or say those things. Circumstances may conspire that you never get the chance to do so.”
With nine actors waiting in the wings, it takes sharp coordination and attention to detail to convey the complex dynamics between each personality that steps through those taxi station doors. Steering the cast towards success is director Tinuke Craig, who collaborated with Geoff previously on The Color Purple musical. “Working with Tinuke is great,” he enthuses. “I’ve found her very easy-going, but meticulous at the same time, so you feel yourself in the hands of somebody calm and assured, as well as technically strong. She’s a really intelligent person, too, and has brought that to bear with the way she’s handled Jitney.”
Although it’s common for adaptations to offer fresh interpretation of a text, Jitney is relatively unmarked territory in the UK, with its last production (in 2001) also its first. Back then, it was performed with actors from the New York cast, but this features an all-British ensemble using American accents. One notable innovation is movement director Sarita Piotrowski’s decision to replace ‘lights down’ with small acts in-between scenes. “There’s always something for the audience to see,” says Geoff. “It might be a sequence showing the passing of time, or focusing on a particular foible of a character – but there are plenty of different things to keep the audience’s eyes peeled!”
This visually enticing character study comes to Cambridge Arts Theatre on 2 August and runs until 6 August. Book your tickets at cambridgeartstheatre.com