Review: ‘Two Trains Running’ at Arena Stage

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There’s simplicity in truth. Arena Stage’s Two Trains Running is August Wilson’s simple truth about the African American experience during the 1960s urban renewal of inner-city Pittsburgh. But simple conversations among the working class blacks of Two Trains Running belie a profound depth of truth in the African American quest for personal freedom, self-determination and overcoming oppression. And this play is storytelling at its finest.

(L to R) Nicole Lewis (Risa), Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, running March 30-April 29, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.
(L to R) Nicole Lewis (Risa), Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

August Wilson’s inner city roots in the Hill District of Pittsburgh have been the setting for most of his plays from “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” his masterpiece series of 10 works covering the social, political, cultural and economic life in the African American community over the decades of the twentieth century.

Two Trains Running is performed at Arena Stage in collaboration with the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Director Juliette Carrillo sensitively and deftly moves the play from the standard proscenium to the round of Arena Stage’s Fischandler Theater for an enjoyably intimate experience.

Misha Kachman’s realistic urban restaurant set design feels as if you walked right into one of those inner-city greasy spoons that’s the meeting ground for all kinds of colorful neighborhood characters. And that’s where Two Trains Running unfolds – right in the middle of an African American community under siege from the effects of urban renewal and its social displacement, loss of identity, search for meaning and pursuit of one’s own path to “getting your luck changed.”

Memphis Lee, the owner of the restaurant, is the latest victim to receive notice that his building is about to be torn down by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. He is determined and ready to fight for a fair payout from the city but expects to be taken advantage of by a racially unfair system.

The cast of personalities who frequent his restaurant every day are all street philosophers with their own points of view on how to deal with social institutions designed to oppress black folks. Their personal ideas touch the heart of the cultural life of African Americans, that includes turning to the illegal gambling of running numbers to supernatural means and religious crutches like seeking out deified spiritual readers and prophets like Aunt Esther and Prophet Samuel who loom in the background.

(L to R) Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee), Reginald Andre Jackson (Wolf) and David Emerson Toney (Holloway) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, running March 30-April 29, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.
Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee), Reginald Andre Jackson (Wolf) and David Emerson Toney (Holloway) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre.

Two Trains Running is, at its core, a political statement on the cusp of the Black Power Movement and deals with the social, political and economic challenges facing the African American community in the 1960s. It is subversive in its own way as it juxtaposes differing philosophies between the revolutionary militarism of Malcolm X and the non-violent approach of the Civil Rights Movement.

It reaches deeply across both ends of the spectrum in the search for human dignity. Personal freedom hangs in the balance as each character determines his or her own path to a better life in the face of racial discrimination and economic deprivation.

It was edifying to see a play of this magnitude opening during the week that America commemorates the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King. Its message is relevant as ever in light of our current political environment of social inequality and division.

Eugene Lee’s absolutely marvelous portrayal of Memphis Lee is a combination of gritty resilience and bitter anger over how the black man has fared in America. He is a hard-nosed know-it-all who, despite his blustery pontification about self-reliance, still resorts to the supernatural by going to the local spiritualist to find ways to overcome his problems.

Wolf is the local numbers runner who uses Memphis’ restaurant to do his business. Reginald Andre Jackson gives a terrific performance as Wolf, a man who is not as concerned about fighting the white man to get ahead as he is about just making a living and finding a good woman despite his lies about being a player.

Smack-talking Holloway is the consummate street philosopher. David Emerson Toney is powerful as Holloway and his loud-mouthed characterization is a joy to behold.

Just out of jail but ready for the revolution, Carlton Byrd’s strong presence as Sterling woos the rigidly righteous Risa right into his heart but not before buying a gun to take matters into his own hands as he tries to find a job as a newly released convict.

William Hall, Jr. is phenomenal as West, the dapperly slick but sufficiently creepy neighborhood undertaker and the only one who really has any money. He’s a wealthy man who is not above cheating his clients right into the grave.

(L to R) Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, running March 30-April 29, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Hambone (brilliantly played by Frank Riley III) is the wild-eyed neighborhood crazy man whose mental illness has him stuck in the time when he is cheated out of his pay of a ham by a white store owner. His crazed “Where’s my ham?  Gimme my ham!” makes Hambone perhaps the most powerful character of all because he demands to get what is due him, and his focus is on nothing else.

The other characters’ ideas about how to make a better life for themselves—a life that inevitably relies upon their capacity to adapt to white oppression–results in their resentment and anger, ever on the brink of despair. They have accepted victimhood. Hambone hasn’t.

Risa is a waitress at Memphis’ restaurant and the only woman in the play. She is a study in understated, down-to-earth determination. She ignores Memphis’ chauvinistic bossiness but hides a deeply sensitive side. Risa cut her legs to hide her beauty to keep men from harassing her. Nicole Lewis gives an outstanding portrayal of Risa.

During one particularly poignant moment, which seems to be a metaphor for the entire play, Risa dances alone to the restaurant’s normally broken jukebox that miraculously lights up as she moves to Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look”:

Take a look in the mirror

But don’t look too close

Cause you might see the person you hate the most.

Lord, what’s happening to this human race

I can’t even see one human face.”

The entire cast of Two Trains Running is a top-flight ensemble of strong, seasoned actors who give dynamite performances of the first order.

A master of African American oral dialogue, August Wilson authentically captures how folks talk in the hood — so be prepared to hear the N-word at every turn. Two Trains Running is also outrageously funny and filled with street wisdom that could challenge the Bible. It lifts the mundane to the sublime in the search for human dignity. A must-see theatrical production.

Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Two Trains Running plays through April 29, 2018, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 Sixth Street SW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets call (202) 488-3300, or go online.

1 COMMENT

  1. I am grateful for the opportunity to witness one of August Wilson’s most relevant period pieces of the rawest decade. Thank GOD for Molly Smith and Arena Stage’s commitment to great theater!

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