IIt’s hard to imagine now, looking back at a body of work that includes Ma Rainey’s black stockings and Two trains running, but when he started in the late 1970s, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson struggled to write dialogue. “I didn’t appreciate and respect the way black people spoke,” he said years later in an interview. “I thought that in order to make art out of it, it had to be changed.” He asked a playwright friend, “How do you get your characters to speak? The answer? “You don’t. You listen to them.

Jitney, one of Wilson’s earliest plays, centers on a group of workers renowned for speaking: five of the eight characters are taxi drivers (the other three are a hotel doorman and regular fare; a bookie; one girlfriend / student – it’s a man’s world). In a run down area of ​​Pittsburgh, Becker (Andrew French, tired and explosive) runs an unlicensed taxi office, a “jitney station”. The block in which it is based is slated for demolition. The place offers a pretext for a sequence of dialogues and meetings that open up broader Afro-American experiences. Here, the drivers waiting for a job exchange stories, gibes, hopes, frustrations. Each offers a particular angle on forces beyond their control. Forces that, like the redevelopment to destroy their livelihoods, are led by profit-minded white men, not people.

Like their characters, the actors also seem to struggle against forces beyond their control. A long, narrow, bare and unrealistic jitney desk is raised above stage level and placed in a thick-framed black box, on which cityscapes are intermittently projected, as if director Tinuke Craig and designer Alex Lowde were trying to turn the stage into a screen. These projections, combined with the atmospheric music and sound of Max Perryment, reinforce the filmic effect but interfere with the dramatic rhythm and tension. All of these hamper performance. Fortunately, the strong actors listen to Wilson’s text and forcefully convey the life of his characters revealed in a moving way through their speech.

Jitney is at Leeds Playhouse until November 6