Seeing Two Trains Running at Arena Stage marks the halfway point of my consummation of playwright August Wilson’s decalogue of dramas expressing the 20th century black experience in America. Viewing Wilson’s Century Cycle—each play is assigned a decade from the 1900s to 1990s—has been one of the great pleasures of my theatergoing life. In past reviews, I’ve praised the almost peerless mastery of storytelling and character development, and the blues-infused poetry of the dialogue in these works.
Another reason that the plays of August Wilson appeal so much to me is that I believe he was an honest chronicler of history. What I mean by that is that the characters who inhabit his plays are not aware they’re in history plays and aren’t glaring stand-ins for extant big ideas. As in reality, where most people are not drivers of historical tectonics, nor even conscious actors in those movements, the characters of Wilson’s social-realist narratives are primarily occupied with personal, elemental concerns.
Two Trains Running is set in 1969, but the regulars of Memphis Lee’s broke-down diner aren’t trying to change the world with sloganeering and activism. There’s argumentative back and forth about the efficacy of the nascent Black Power movement and mention of slain civil rights leader and provocateur Malcom X, but the characters are more concerned about finding a job, looking for a new angle, collecting what’s due them, and making plans, things real people do. Personal associations with the sweep of history, if made at all, often evolve in retrospect, once documentarians dress up and blast out the highlight reels.
For example, the redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a predominantly black neighborhood, serves as the underpinning for the central plot—the diner is slated for demolition and Memphis (Eugene Lee) is in negotiations with the city for a fair price for his property. The renewal project went on for decades and while meant to improve the area and residential housing, led to displacement and economic stagnation. But Memphis isn’t really concerned about that, and doesn’t go off on a harangue about gentrification—that would’ve been the move for a lazier writer and a shallower work. Memphis laments the fact that people don’t come in to eat anymore, and that neighboring businesses have closed, but he intends to upgrade his lot in life with the money he’s owed. The enduring power of Wilson’s work lies in the inarguably honest look into the blemished lives of everyday folks, something relatable to all.
The entire play takes place within the walls of Memphis’ imperiled eatery, which serves very little of the items advertised on the menu. Instead, it functions as a hangout for regulars like Wolf (Reginald Andre Jackson), a hustler and numbers runner for local gangsters; Holloway (David Emerson Toney), a retiree, cynic and dime-store philosopher; West (William Hall, Jr.), the undertaker and the richest man in town; and the childlike Hambone (Frank Riley III), one of Wilson’s “lunatic seers” whose demands for a side of ham promised him a decade earlier by the local white butcher in payment for painting a fence resonate as representation of the struggle for civil rights justice.
The regulars are inadequately attended to by Memphis and the sole waitress Risa (Nicole Lewis), a woman who’s taken to hopelessness and cutting her legs in order to ward off suiters. Sterling (Carlton Byrd), a cocky, driven young man, just released from prison and unemployed, finds asylum at the diner and an interest in Risa.
The dense, circumlocutory talk is typical of Wilson, and the characters often digress—but the driving topic of conversation among the gathered centers around money—how to make it, what to do with it once you have it, and how to lose it—and the activities across the street at the funeral home where again a man’s worth is measured in the luxury of his burial.
The characters also share stories of misfortune, injustice and dispossession. Memphis dwells on the decades-old sting of being driven from his Mississippi farm by intimidation and Holloway condemns the era of American slavery with his elegiac “stacking niggers” monologue.
Two Trains Running
closes April 29, 2018
Details and tickets
Arena’s production, in collaboration with the Seattle Repertory Theatre and directed by Juliette Carrillo, is animated, humorous, and buoyed by strong performances from the ensemble, especially Lee’s masterful command of Memphis, unyielding and intense, who strikes out in clipped, combative jabs like an aging prizefighter, and Byrd’s blazing and charismatic turn as Sterling. While Lewis’ Risa is mostly passive, her crafted silences and reactions are compelling, making her underwritten character all the more intriguing. (One of the few flaws of Wilson’s grand work is the imbalance between male and female characters.)
Although the play is a long one at three hours, Carrillo sets an engaging pace for the audience to take in Wilson’s song. Set designer Misha Kachman credibly puts a wall-less diner together for Arena’s stage-in-the-round, and the costumes from Ivania Stack splendidly transport viewers back to the 1960s.
Two Trains Running at Arena Stage is a first-rate production typical of Wilson’s best work—a prolix portrayal of working-class people going about their lives amid a backdrop of larger transformative historical forces, and not a drop of sentimentality anywhere.
Two Trains Running by August Wilson. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. Featuring Reginald Andre Jackson, Eugene Lee, Nicole Lewis, David Emerson Toney, Frank Riley III, Carlton Byrd and William Hall, Jr. Set design: Misha Kachman. Lighting design: Sherrice Mojgani. Costume design: Ivania Stack. Composition and sound design: David R. Molina. Stage manager: Cristine Anne Reynolds. Produced by Arena Stage in association with Seattle Repertory Theatre. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.