This past week brought a powerful confluence of “wake up” energy to Washington, DC. Sunday, people gathered at Washington’s National Cathedral to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his last sermon there fifty years ago a few short days before he was gunned down in Memphis. Last Friday, Duke Ellington School held a memorial for Washington’s premiere voice for theater and the arts, Peggy Cooper Cafritz. On Wednesday I sat in the audience in the Fichandler, Arena Stage’s original theater in the round, and watched a consummate production of Two Trains Running pay tribute to a theater master, August Wilson.
These tributes, like Wilson’s spectacularly ambitious and important Century Cycle of plays, were not only about remembering but redemption. The messages of these three voices (King, Cafritz, and Wilson) have never felt so urgent. And as Wilson’s most emblematic character Aunt Ester would put it, “You gotta go back and pick up the ball.”
I’ve been following Wilson’s plays for years, first in the Twin Cities, then chasing up and down the east coast to see them in production. Last year I returned to a close reading of these dramas under the most able tutelage of Riley Temple at Virginia Theological Seminary.
Two Trains Running, in my opinion, is one of Wilson’s best, and has all the earmarks of his remarkable journey of plays that mark every decade in African-Americans history.
The play takes place in 1969 and therefore acts as a kind of response to King’s sermon of fifty years ago that was replayed at the National Cathedral. Wilson’s play about the sixties is never polemic nor is it a jot sentimental in telling the story of Black Americans. The politics and social rifts of the period certainly cast a great shadow over the characters’ lives, but Wilson treats his characters with restraint and accords each one of them a sense of personal dignity.
Sure, there is some talk about a rally for Malcolm X happening in downtown Pittsburgh, but for most of the play, the characters are not caught up in the days’ headlines but rather are pursuing (or avoiding) the trials of their daily lives. Sterling wants a job, having been recently released from prison. Wolf wants to make a little money calling the numbers. And Memphis struggles to keep his diner open while his neighborhood is falling apart around him and his building is slated for demolition. Perhaps most especially there is Hambone, a man struggling to keep things together, whose incessant line, “I want my ham,” becomes a litany in the show for the rare few who won’t settle for something other than what is owed them.
We come to theater to be shaken awake and when we need to hear truth spoken. Fifty years ago, our nation felt torn apart through the horrors of war, racism, and a great economic divide. Fifty years later, we’ve been through a year that has us feeling imperiled by the same issues. We come together in Washington’s “arena” forum, perhaps most importantly to redeem our nation’s soul through the plays of August Wilson.
I would argue there is no better place than Washington’s National Cathedral, a church for all people, set here in our nation’s capital, to hear the moral authority of Martin Luther King, Jr. Similarly, there is no better theater than Arena Stage to remind us of its preeminent role historically as a place to bear witness to drama of important ideas.
It was 1987 when Arena Stage offered August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone directed by Lloyd Richards. Subsequently, the company has produced Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Gem of the Ocean, King Hedley II and now Two Trains Running. In a sense, chronicling the lifework of Wilson on stage has moved Washington audiences from experiencing a production to participating in an important ritual, and even acknowledging where ritual becomes liturgy.
There is nothing like sitting in the Fichandler and being aware of the audience across the space experiencing the same show. But in particular this show’s design creates a totally immersive world. (All the more extraordinary in that the production is one jointly with Seattle Rep and it already had a run there with its proscenium staging that had to be completely reimagined and restaged by the team to communicate “in the round.”)
See how the actors act with their backs. See William Hall, Jr. as Undertaker West stride across the floor, his heels tapping out paths in perpendicular lines. Watch David Emerson Toney as Holloway not only command his rumbling rich sound all the better to carry 360 degrees, but, with a quiet pivot of his head stare off into space, the actor makes his monologues into sung “arias.” Mark how Eugene Lee is so natural as Memphis it seems he needs to do nothing to embody August Wilson.
Heck, all in this remarkable ensemble prove the embodiment of their characters. Each has a walk, a different rhythmic gait. There’s the detail in their costumes, in everything that gets the gist of them – from Risa’s Howard Johnson-blue short waitress dress and West’s shiny black suit with stick tie pin and vest with watch chain to Wolf’s tightly-waved and greased hair bringing to mind James Brown’s style and strut.
The men saunter into a diner owned by the character Memphis Lee. Their conversation flows. It all looks so effortless.
It’s as if we are sitting in the diner (with a nod to Edward Hopper’s “Night Owls”) with them. We pass the time following the rise and fall of voices, captured by Wilson, crafted and nuanced as structured pieces of music. This is poetic naturalism at its best. It’s as if we too have been cut a piece of pie, poured a cup of coffee, and treated to an extra piece of cornbread. Allowed to sit with these people, we’re invited into going back to a slice of Black American history and remembering a place and time.
Then each character repeats a gesture, a kind of psychological iconic gesture that gets caught in a spotlight between naturalistic scenes. Gesture becomes the stuff of ritual enactment. Toney pounds the back of one hand into an alternating palm, recalling for us his memory of how White folk was all about “stacking the N____.” West removes a glove and raises his exposed hand to the ceiling, testifying he is a man. Sterling teaches Hambone as if helping someone learn sign language with “Black is beautiful” and thereby breaks the cycle of torment of Hambone’s limited speech. We are being offered heart breaking open Grace.
We need Wilson’s voice now just like we need this play. And Zelda Fichandler may be offering us her Arena Stage address, just as Aunt Ester, the wise three-hundred plus year old presence in this play, has her address given out on Wylie Avenue.
You might also want to take the time to read August Wilson’s 10 play Cycle and Roy Maurer’s fine review. And if you want to go a little deeper still, I’d recommend Riley Temple’s book, “Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed.”