Actors love August Wilson. Audiences love to see his plays, often more than once. Theatres love to include them in their seasons. Off the top of my head, I can think of four productions that will play around here either this season or next – Piano Lesson opens in just under two weeks at Olney. So it’s not unusual that there are some actors around town (Fred Strother, Doug Brown) who have done a lot of Wilson over the years.
What is unusual is for two actors to each be playing different roles in different productions of one of the Wilson plays ten years apart. But that’s happening now in Round House Theatre’s Two Trains Running. KenYatta Rogers and Michael Anthony Williams did the play in 2004 at The African Continuum Theatre. In that production, Rogers played Sterling and Williams played Memphis. At Round House, Rogers is now Wolf and Williams is Holloway. There are only seven characters in the play. That means that, between them, the two actors have played (if my math is correct) 57% of the roles in the play.
And they played those roles to great acclaim. In his Washington Post review of the African Continuum production (directed by Jennifer L. Nelson and performed at the Kennedy Center’s Film Theater), Peter Marks called Williams “excellent” and Rogers “charismatic.” (“Good Wilson is always a group effort, and this group serves him well,” he wrote in praise of the entire cast.) Debbie Jackson reviewed the current Round House production for DCTS.com. She wrote that Williams is “superb” and Rogers is “a hoot.”
I spoke with both actors separately.
Rogers told me that this is the first time he has come back to a play in a different role. “Yes, it was strange, because I loved that production, loved what the director and the ensemble created, the design team. I had to tell myself that this would be a completely different process. You can’t step in the same place in the stream twice. But it was easy to quickly relinquish that; it was pretty easy to let that go. It could have been much weirder if it weren’t so wholly its own thing so quickly off the bat.”
Rogers observed that there was one problem. “When the director would give Sterling a note, I would jump. That lasted a long time. Sterling is still somewhere in my body. He’s in there listening.” So when Timothy Douglas, directing at Round House, had a note for Ricardo Frederick Evans, who plays Sterling at Round House, “I’d look up, then I’d look down really fast.”
Another adjustment involved his past and current cast-mate Williams, who is now playing Holloway but who had been Rogers’ Memphis in that earlier production. Rogers confessed that occasionally, early on in rehearsal, upon seeing Williams “the name ‘Memphis’ would slip out” instead of the name of the character Williams is now playing.
Rogers said that his familiarity with his earlier role had a “kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern effect.” Having participated before as Sterling in conversations concerning the off-stage Wolf “threw me into ‘What is Wolf doing now?’” Tracking those clues became key to his creation of Wolf’s off-stage activity “and allowed me to enter the stage with a full life, a really rich off-stage life. ‘Where was I just now?’”
Returning to the play, for Rogers, “was the same process but, because the play was in my bones, it seemed less effortful. It doesn’t hurt that I know the work well, his [Wilson’s] ruthless rhythms. I know the decalogue,” he said, referring to the ten related plays Wilson wrote, each taking place in a different decade of the 20th century. This Two Trains marks his seventh production of a Wilson play, and he has now appeared in six of the ten.
And Rogers also knows Pittsburgh, where the plays are set, having gone to grad school at the University of Pittsburgh, “one neighborhood over from the Hill District.” When his character talks about specific places, “I know where I’m pointing, which way is up and which way is down in the Hill District.”
Closes May 4, 2014
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $35 – $50
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Rogers told me about his first Wilson role, doing Fences in high school. “I was one of the first people to play Troy after James Earl Jones played it on Broadway. So I started out with a fifty-something patriarch and then moved to the young ingenues.” Rogers compared the rich range of Wilson’s characters to Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech and he spoke movingly about what Wilson’s portraits of the different stages of life mean to him, “what they give me in terms of giving my father and my grandfather back to me.” In fact, one of Rogers’ favorite moments in the play involves the generational dynamic to which he was referring.
That moment is in the last scene and involves an interaction with his earlier character, Sterling, that isn’t part of the text or indicated in the stage directions. It demonstrates the importance of the older characters in Wilson’s work, the ones he refers to as “the seers, the community of elders, the gatekeeper of sorts, the ultimate culture-bearers,” who teach and guide the younger characters. “It happens in Wilson again and again. I’m biased, as a former Sterling, to love Sterling, and it seemed right not to deny that on stage.” I won’t spoil the moment by describing it, but you can see it for yourself, as the immensely popular production has extended through May 4.
Michael Anthony Williams told me, “I’ve done Joe Turner, Jitney, Ma Rainey’s twice, Two Trains twice. I’m halfway through the cycle.” Returning to Two Trains, he told me, is “definitely interesting. I kinda feel like anytime you can revisit an August Wilson play, it’s a blessing. It’s a different perspective, a different mind-set, what I learned is very different. I feel there’s a lot more compassion standing in the shoes of the character now than the one I was playing before. There are gaps of time when he is not saying much, and I pick up on things I didn’t pick up on before.”
“What was difficult for me early on was not helping Jefferson with his monologues,” Williams continued, referring to Jefferson A. Russell, who at Round House is playing Memphis, the role Williams played ten years ago. In the very early days of rehearsal, as both were putting aside the script, Williams realized that Memphis’ lines, like Wilson’s lines for most of his actors, are “inside our brains and never go away. The natural inclination is to help him, but I never did. I realized how much I had to work on, so I got focused on that!”
Williams feels that the play now “resonates differently. Times have changed. We have an African-American president. The vitriol about that has made us aware that we haven’t moved as far as we thought. Some of the lines are more biting now. I have a lot of the important monologues dealing with race. My sensibilities have become heightened as well. I’m very different. I have a daughter now.”
Coming back in a different role in a play he’s done before, Williams said, adds “more spice” to the project. “I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to do To Kill a Mockingbird twice, blessed to do “Master Harold”…and the Boys again, playing different characters. It makes it a rich experience, it’s completely different, I love that opportunity.”
Williams wanted to end the interview by giving a “shout-out that the Lord has put KenYatta and me on stage again. It’s our fourth time on stage together, our third time in a play by August Wilson. The odds of that are rare. And I’m giddy. And that shows on stage. It’s my third time with Doug [Brown, who plays West at Round House]. The three of us, we have a wonderful relationship.” And the stories I’ve heard about the amount of fun the cast has been having together, and the amount of laughter they’ve shared? Williams laughs and admits, “The foolishness abounds!” Then, he noted a special bond between Rogers and himself: “Both of us are fathers. Our kids are going to sit together and watch their dads perform.” Contemplating the approach of that special day, he said that moments like that are what life’s all about. “I’m ecstatic.”
In full disclosure, I must point out that the seventh actor in the production, Frank Britton, who plays Hambone, is my housemate. I’ve gotten steady reports about how satisfying and rewarding the process has been for the actors, how much fun they have had together during that process, and how, from the first preview on, the production has been warmly received by audiences who rise to their feet at its conclusion. I should also say that when Jennifer Nelson, director of the earlier Two Trains production, directed a co-production (African Continuum Theatre and Washington Shakespeare Company) in 2000 of As You Like It, KenYatta Rogers played Orlando and I was Jacques.
…And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages…