Playwright August Wilson has been gone from us over a decade, but his voice remains with us through his powerful Century Cycle of plays—one for every decade of the 20th century.
Directed by Juliette Carrillo, Seattle Repertory Theatre is presenting Wilson’s 1992 drama, “Two Trains Running,” though February in the Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre.
Wilson focused each of his 10 plays in a different decade of the 20th century, shining a light on what he considered an endless struggle for African Americans. And his plays were always set in his beloved Hill District of Pittsburgh, where he was born and raised, and featured a cast of slice-of-life characters.
“Two Trains Running” unfolds in a historic neighborhood diner in Pittsburgh that is threatened by redevelopment. It is 1969, and racial conflicts and the Vietnam War have our nation in turmoil.
Wilson’s seven, garrulous characters in “Two Trains” hang out in a small, dingy diner owned by a man named Memphis Lee. At a critical moment in the tumultuous Civil Rights movement, Memphis is forced to consider selling his restaurant to the city of Pittsburgh, as urban planning eats away at his Hill District neighborhood.
Every day, a small and diverse group of black men gather at Lee’s, where they swap stories and attitude. They all want something they feel is due to them: a job, a ham, a fair price, a jackpot in the numbers racket, a lover, a rally for racial justice, a ticket to Atlanta, a life. But they all must wait. Like Wilson’s frontispiece of the script reads, “If the trains don’t hurry, there’s gonna be some walking done.”
Each player has a backstory. Memphis, a sharecropper who lost his land to avaricious white businessmen in the early 1930s; Hambone, a crazy who wants the side of ham he was promised for a painting he did for a local butcher; Wolf, a streetwise numbers runner who does business out of Memphis’ diner; Sterling, young hotshot just out of prison and determined to recruit the others for a rally; Holloway, a retired house painter and armchair philosopher; West, a wealthy, local undertaker; and Risa, the lone woman, both in the diner and Wilson’s play, serves food and pithy retorts to their rambling repartee.
Wilson’s slice-of-life storyline ranges from picturesque and touching to angry, bitter and humorous. He created a roster of characters — musicians, aging athletes from the Negro Leagues, cabdrivers, ex-cons, matriarchs and spirits — who were proud people but angry about their circumstances. His plays unfold like a symphony of words, and he endowed his characters with glorious and poignant soliloquies– often show-stoppers–full of passion, rage and sorrowful climaxes–the underbelly and legacy of slavery.
One of the 20th century’s most acclaimed playwrights, Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 and formed a deep connection with Seattle Rep. The Rep is one of the few theatres in the country to produce Wilson’s full Century Cycle of plays, including his solo play, “How I Learned What I Learned.”
Born in 1945, Wilson grew up absent a father in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA, during racial and economic strife. In honor of his mother, he took her maiden name and changed his name to August Wilson after his father’s death in 1965. He dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, but he was determined to be a writer. Wilson spent much of his time in his community writing in the cafes, bars and a cigar store. He worked as a short-order cook and dishwasher while trying to write poems, usually with little success. His first published poem, an ode to boxer Muhammad Ali, ran in Black World magazine in 1969.
Regarded as the most prominent black playwright on Broadway since Lorraine Hansberry, Wilson has been compared to Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare. Later in his career, he told a reporter that his plays were part of a cycle was coincidental until one day in the mid-1980s, when he asked himself, “Why don’t I just continue to do that?”
His most famous play is “Fences,” recently shown on the big screen starring and directed by Denzel Washington and co-starring Viola Davis. “Two Trains Running” is a close second.
Over the course of his life, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” as well as Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships, a Tony Award (“Fences”), Drama Desk Award, and four New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards. “Two Trains Running” became a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and is the seventh play in his decade-by-decade account of black American life in this century.
In 1992, The New York Times called ‘Two Trains Running” ”Mr. Wilson’s most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate heart of history. . . .”
Not everyone agrees. Some critics cite the monotony of his themes and the plays’ unrestrained dialogue. Undaunted, Wilson replied: “My plays are talky; I say shut up and listen. They are about black men talking, and in American society you don’t too often have that because the feeling is: ‘What do black men have to say?’
Produced in association with Arena Stage, “Two Trains Running“ runs Tuesday-Sunday through February 11 at Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Bagley Wright Theatre; tickets start at $17; discounted tickets for groups of 10+ may be purchased by calling 206.443.2224. For ticket reservations, call the Seattle Repertory Theatre Box Office at 206.443.2222 or toll-free at 877.900.9285, or go online at seattlerep.org
Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee)
Nicole Lewis (Risa)
William Hall Jr. (West)
Carlton Byrd (Sterling)
Reginald Andre Jackson (Wolf)
David Emerson Toney (Holloway)
Frank Riley III (Hambone)
The Production Team
Juliette Carillo (director)
Misha Kachman (scenic design)
Ivania Stack (costume design)
Sherrice Mojgani (lighting design)
David R. Molina (sound design)
Gin Hammond (Vocal Coach)
About Juliette Carillo
Juliette returns to Seattle Repertory Theatre where she previously directed The Cook by Eduardo Machado, The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and Brownsville Song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Juliette has directed critically acclaimed premiere and revival productions in theatres across the country, including Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Repertory, Yale Repertory, Denver Center Theatre Company, Portland Center Stage, and the Goodman Theatre. As a member of the Cornerstone Theater Company ensemble, she has developed work for and with various communities such as the Los Angeles River community, the addiction and recovery community, the Hindu community, and seniors and their caregivers. She was an Artistic Associate and Director of the Hispanic Playwright’s Project at South Coast Repertory for seven years. She is a recipient of several awards, including the NEA/TCG Directing Fellowship and the Princess Grace Award, and was finalist for the Zelda Fichandler Award. A Yale School of Drama graduate, she is currently on faculty at UC Irvine. For more: www.juliettecarrillo.com
About August Wilson (Playwright)
(April 27, 1945-October 2, 2005)
August Wilson authored ”Gem of the Ocean,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Seven Guitars,” “Fences,” “Two Trains Running,” “Jitney, King Hedley II,” and “Radio Golf.” These works explore the heritage and experience of African Americans, decade by decade, over the course of the 20th century. His plays have been produced at regional theatres across the country and all over the world, as well as on Broadway. In 2003, Mr. Wilson made his professional stage debut at Seattle Repertory Theatre in his one man show, How I Learned What I Learned. Mr. Wilson’s works garnered many awards including Pulitzer Prizes for Fences (1987) andThe Piano Lesson (1990); a Tony Award for Fences; Great Britain’s Olivier Award for Jitney; as well as eight New York Drama Critics Circle Awards for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, Jitney, and Radio Golf. Additionally, the cast recording of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom received a 1985 Grammy Award, and Mr. Wilson received a 1995 Emmy Award nomination for his screenplay adaptation of The Piano Lesson. Mr. Wilson’s early works included the one-act plays The Janitor, Recycle, The Coldest Day of the Year, Malcolm X, The Homecoming, and the musical satire Black Bart and the Sacred Hills. Mr. Wilson received many fellowships and awards, including Rockefeller and Guggenheim Fellowships in Playwrighting, the Whiting Writers Award, 2003 Heinz Award, was awarded a 1999 National Humanities Medal by the President of the United States, and received numerous honorary degrees from colleges and universities, as well as the only high school diploma ever issued by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. He was an alumnus of New Dramatists, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a 1995 inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and on October 16, 2005, Broadway renamed the theatre located at 245 West 52nd Street ”The August Wilson Theatre.” Additionally, Mr. Wilson posthumously received the Dramatists Guild Award for Lifetime Achievement; was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame; is the chosen namesake for Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture; as well as having a portion of Seattle Center’s campus renamed “August Wilson Way.” Mr. Wilson was born and raised in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and lived in Seattle, Washington, at the time of his death. He is immediately survived by his two daughters, Sakina Ansari and Azula Carmen Wilson, and his wife, costume designer Constanza Romero.