‘Two Trains Running’ at Round House Theatre

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“There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death.” – August Wilson

Change is in the air. It’s 1969, a pivotal year of change and a turning point in American history when assassinations, racial riots, and antiwar protests marked the late 1960s. When we meet the seven affable characters in Two Trains Running written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, August Wilson, little has changed for the black man. Economic injustice hasn’t changed and little has changed for them … yet.

Change is in the air.

Michael Anthony Williams (Holloway). Photo by Danisha Crosby.
Michael Anthony Williams (Holloway). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Round House Theatre is a part of that change with the first time appearance of an August Wilson play, and their latest production Two Trains Running, directed by Timothy Douglas. A Yale School of Drama graduate, Douglas, was hand-selected by the celebrated American playwright to direct  the World Premiere of Radio Golf (the 10th and final installment of Wilson’s acclaimed Pittsburgh Cycle.) Douglas will also direct King Hedley II for Arena Stage’s recently announced 2014-2015 season.

Poignant, humorous, and richly layered in its portrayal exploring the harsh urban reality, Two Trains Running reflects the oral tradition of African American culture, as the characters in this Wilson masterpiece, gossip, philosophize, storytell, and debate over a period of one week in Memphis Lee’s restaurant in Pittsburgh.

The title taken from an old Muddy Waters tune (“Still a Fool”), Two Trains Running, is the seventh play in August Wilson’s celebrated 10-play cycle capturing 100 years of African American life, each set in a different decade of the 20th century. Two of the plays in acclaimed “Pittsburgh Cycle” also referred to as “The Century Cycle,”  Fences (1985) and The Piano Lesson (1990), were recognized with Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

The characters in Two Trains Running are fully imagined and this production is a-l-i-v-e, full of swagger. The energy pulsates with humor, vigor, and self determination. It’s oxygen for the soul. You take a deep breath thankful for the all-around brilliance of the show.I’m just appreciative of the opportunity to witness undoubtedly the best ensemble acting I’ve seen all season. The audience burst into laughter throughout the play, and at the end of every scene there was applause. (I’ve never experienced that before.)

The production made my heart sing; I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.

If you have never seen an August Wilson play then you owe it to yourself to see Two Trains Running. Moreover when are you ever going to see Michael Anthony Williams, KenYatta Rogers, Jefferson A. Russell, Ricardo Frederick Evans, Shannon Dorsey, Frank Britton, and Doug Brown performing together again on the same stage. Let me tell you – you’re not – and that’s why you need to buy your ticket now before it leaves Round House Theatre on May 4th. These seven hardworking actors are not only among the best local talent you will see, they are just a few of the wealth of talented African-American area actors that we need to see more often on stage together.

A potent combination of intellect, life experience, and grace, the action in the eight scenes of this two-act drama might be minimal (which is typical with many August Wilson plays), but the rich musical language of the dialogue – the  emotional resonance – is full throttle and the social dynamics are electrifying. It’s a magical production because Wilson’s poetic language and Douglas’ luminous vision have created its own world, and as audience member we are a part of it.

Sterling (Ricardo Frederick Evans) and Wolf (Kenyatta Rogers). Photo by Danisha Crosby.
Sterling (Ricardo Frederick Evans) and Wolf (Kenyatta Rogers). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Once a thriving business, Memphis Lee’s (Jefferson A. Russell) diner has been reduced to the few who represent the play’s cast. Struggling to cope in a turbulent world, the regulars of Memphis’ diner are fighting back with everything they have and know how to do.  Don’t let the loud voices fool you. Two Trains Running is full of life, big heart, and revealing soul. At various times the emotional interior lives of the characters are fully exposed and the lingering residue is verbal fodder ripe for picking.

As the play unfolds, we learn that Memphis’ restaurant and the entire block are scheduled to be torn down. The action of eminent domain by the City, Memphis’ lifeline is to become a casualty, but he wants his rightly due – $25,000 and not a penny less. He cannot be swayed to sell for less by West (the astute Doug Brown) the rich undertaker across the street. Standing his ground in court against the City, Memphis refuses to be swindled out of his land like he was before in Mississippi. Russell’s soulful and passionate performance as the resolute, hard-working owner is deeply reaching as his character explores a powerful economic theme. He digs deep and I believed every hue of his illuminating characterization of poetic justice.

The loosely plotted play is a series of clues, where on the surface the insignificant banter among the characters may not seem like much, but the bits of information gradually lead to deeper meaning and understanding.

In a sense, through this group of people Wilson is showing us ourselves.

Wolf is the ‘Mac Daddy’ wannabe bookie colorfully played by Kenyatta Rogers who has learned to play by the white man’s rules. Rogers is hilarious and his engaging physicality with the role is a delight. In a breakout performance, Ricardo Frederick Evans plays Sterling, an unemployed young man recently released from the penitentiary. Embracing the black power spirit and the teachings of Malcolm X he grapples to makes his simple dreams a reality – but never gives up. (Lawrence Fishbourne was the winner of the 1992 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for this role.)

The charismatic Holloway (Michael Anthony Williams), a retired house painter and the resident philosopher, is my favorite because he always keeps it real and doesn’t shy away from the truth. His character provokes thought and will make you laugh often, but his truths can break your heart. His fervent belief in the supernatural and the enigmatic prophecies of Aunt Ester, the 322-year-old woman living down the street at the house with the red door, is a telling reminder of the struggle and is how Holloway continues to pursue life despite the acceptance of his inability to affect change.

Michael Anthony Williams is an actor’s actor, and he is as fascinating to watch when he doesn’t have lines, as when he does. His instinctive reactions, play with the dialogue (and the pauses) are a master class on timing and being in the moment, and Williams’ performance of Holloway is a joy to watch because you feel the kinetic freedom he radiates with the role. He has the audience wrapped around his metaphoric clenched fist. I don’t know how he could be any better.

Hambone is mentally challenged (Memorably played, Frank Britton steals the scene every time his gravel voice utters a word.), but as Holloway says, “He might have more sense than all of us.” Hambone continually demands his long-delayed payment out of a ham, a debt owed to him by Lutz, the white owner of a meat market who cheated him nine-and-a-half years earlier.

As the restaurant’s cook and waitress, Risa (Shannon Dorsey) is the only female role in Two Trains Running. Full of heart, intelligence, and common good sense, for Risa, her legs tell her life story. She is a fascinating and complex character who has intentionally razor-scarred her legs as protection from the world and to distance the sexual interest of men. Shannon Dorsey’s quiet dignity of a performance is tender and effecting, and she beautifully captures Risa’s growing empowerment. Like Risa, Dorsey fiercely holds her own with the men in this production.

Jefferson A. Russell (Memphis). Photo by Danisha Crosby.
Jefferson A. Russell (Memphis). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Dan Covey’s seamless, barely noticeable light design highlighted the emotion of the play and added a flattering element to the incredible scenic design by Tony Cisek. The fading paint and linoleum floors in the small but intimate interior of Memphis’ homey restaurant (with the unreliable jukebox, booth seats lined against one wall, and a counter service with stools) is a gem. The setting is so welcoming and familiar that I was ready to jump on that stage and enjoy a flashback in history price meal of meatloaf and two sides (collard greens and macaroni & cheese, please) for an unbelievable $2.35. I don’t know if ‘those were the days’, but that is certainly a price I would happily enjoy.

There’s no one better than Reggie Ray with his keen eye for detail and authenticity at fashioning the African American experience. Literally from head to toe, this ensemble resembles the ordinary, working class folks from a Pittsburgh neighborhood in the late 60’s.  This are people you know and the looks are familiar. Not only by the way the act and speak, but how they dress. Dramaturg Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe has also done a stellar job of informing the production and the actors with a knowledgeable sense of time and place in history.

Timothy Douglas’ expertly timed moving pace keeps Two Trains Running with a gusto allowing the audience to revel in its energy, yet the finesse of enough room for the audience to exhale. Each of us will experience our own individualized ride of life and death, but you can’t survive by yourself. Two Trains Running creates a synergy of community where the ups and downs – all the in betweens – of life are shared, cried over, and mourned.

Fresh with hope and utterly transformed as the story comes to a close, the characters remain pointed toward the future. In this small world of Two Trains Running, yes, a change has come.

“To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your preference in the world is all that can be asked of anyone.” – August Wilson

Running Time: Two Hours and fifty minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

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Two Trains Running plays through May 4, 2014 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - sydneychanele@gmail.com [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]

2 COMMENTS

    • Thank you Carolyn! I very much appreciate your comments. I plan to see it again next Tuesday evening. Let me know if you can go then.

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