Two Trains Running is playing at Seattle Repertory Theatre through February 11, 2018. Get tickets here.
August Wilson is perhaps one of the most celebrated American playwrights of the 20th Century. His “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays consists of 10 stage productions set between the 1900’s and the 1990’s, explore the African-American experience in the United States decade by decade. Dealing with the impact of slavery, starting a new life and trying to find a place in the American Dream, the ‘cycle’ expertly shows how confronting the pains of the past can often lead to the dreams of the future. “Two Trains Running” is one of the final pieces of the puzzle demonstrating the struggle to not only fit into the schism of America, but also trying to establish a financial grounding to grow upon.
The story is set in the year 1969. It is a tumultuous time where the black communities, in the northern cities, have claimed their place on the American tapestry. At this time, the rise of black power, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, the effluent sections of African-American life have blossomed, but the ‘white’ businesses are moving out to the suburbs leaving their counterparts to slowly dry up. “Two Trains Running” is a play about the financial place the ‘black community’ has in America, and how it shifts from it’s shameful past to the prospects of the future.
Memphis is the owner of a restaurant in one of the slowly closing neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. A one time thriving business, the restaurant sees very little customers staying open mainly for the locals determined to stick it out. The city has implied it will buy the property, but Memphis is determined to get ‘a fair price’, enough for him to start life over and to put past financial matters (from his life in the South) to rest once and for all. When a young ex-con man Sterling returns to the area desperately trying to find work, the financial juxtaposition of the situation becomes very clear. Memphis tries his hardest, despite several challenges – both past and present – to run a legitimate business and won’t sell until he receives a fair and equal price for the property he owns.
The actors in Two Trains Running all do an excellent job. Carlton Byrd plays the young, ex-con Sterling. His energy is unbound and the character’s enthusiasm flows through like a fast moving river. Mr. Byrd has a smooth style that works well with the ambitious character trying to recover from his stay in the ‘penitentiary’. He is a fast-talking, charming man with eyes on the waitress Risa. He is the voice of the upcoming African-American, being caught up in the rallies, protests and the speeches of Malcolm X.
Reginald André Jackson plays Wolf, a patron of the restaurant that runs a ’numbers’ game from local pay phones around town, including the restaurant. He expertly portrays the ‘middle man’ of the African-American financial experience; not quite legitimate and not quite not, his role connects the shady dealings of the past to the future financial prospects. William Hall, Jr, plays West, a local undertaker and the most prosperous black man in the community. West has traded his happiness for financial gain, and Mr. Hall allows everything his character has learned about the wheeling and dealing of money to come through in the shiftiness of the character.
David Emerson Toney plays Holloway, a local patron that is perhaps the only cast member not to show interest in financial gain or loss. His role is the unofficial narrator of the past and present explaining how the African-American community moved from the segregated South to the North, hoping to find a better life, only to find a more subtle way of oppressing those that are trying to fit in. His narratives are interesting and explain to the audience the hard road from being unpaid slaves to becoming free citizens working for underpaid wages. As Martin Luther King, Jr said [in his “I Have A Dream” speech]: “America [has given] the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’.”
It is perhaps the waitress Risa (played by Nicole Lewis) that is the strangest of the dichotomies. She is neither the ‘old school’ African-American, nor is she a member of the revolutionary “Black is Beautiful” movement that is prevalent in the play. She has a past that isn’t really explained but the audience senses her struggles both within herself and within her community. Ms. Lewis does an excellent job keeping her character in the middle lanes of change while still being an impressive force in bridging both the worlds of past and present. The character of Risa immediately shows the audience that she is definitely a no-nonsense type of woman, but also allows a human side to be shown when Sterling consistently tries to win her hand in courtship. She is the set of tracks that allows the ‘Two Trains’ to run, and it is up to her to leave them to their courses, or to become involved. It is a subtle hint that every character has to ask Risa for sugar in their coffee, and her character often is the metaphor for adding the sweetener to life grain by grain.
Eugene Lee is the undisputed main character of the story (if one doesn’t count the restaurant itself). As Memphis, he pulls out all stops to show the transition of being screwed out of his rightful property in the South, only to carve out a niche for himself in the North, and then to find himself having to struggle and worry about being recognized as an equal. His range of emotions is subtle and Mr. Lee has honed his craft to express them to an audience waiting to understand. We feel his hesitance, acknowledging his reasons, and completely identify with his wanting an equal share of the financial pie he was promised.
The set is large and the interior of the restaurant dominates the stage. The entire play is set in the restaurant, and it becomes a ‘silent’ character establishing a sort of ‘safe-heaven’ for the characters to reveal themselves one by one. It is more than a place to eat; it is a place for community sharing of values (and for those without), all struggling to make money. Behind the restaurant set, the audience can see the electrical wires and telephone lines that are both liberating and oppressing to the dying neighborhood they are dominating.
“Two Trains Running” is an important play about the financial situations among the African-American community in America. Money is the unseen character that everything else seems to revolve around. Memphis is concerned about getting a fair payment from the city for his property. Sterling spends the entire play trying to find work and to scratch together anything he can in exchange for cash. Wolf is the ‘bookie’ that runs the numbers game, and Risa is the observer commenting on how when people finally do win at the numbers, they usually only receive back what they’ve put into it all along.
August Wilson wrote “The Pittsburgh Cycle” plays to show the growth of the African-American experience in the United States during the 20th Century. Each individual play takes place in a different decade showing the careful juxtaposition of sorrow and achievement along the way. His work has earned many awards including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Fences” (1987) and “The Piano Lesson” (1990). He moved to Seattle in 1990 where he became an important part of the Seattle Repertory Theatre. The S.R.T has, so far, been the only theatre in the United States that has committed to staging his entire cycle of plays and his one-man show where the author played himself. Posthumously, a theatre on Broadway was renamed The August Wilson Theatre (245 West 42nd Street, NY) and a walkway within the Seattle Center was named in his honor. He was also inducted into the “Theater Hall of Fame”.
“Two Trains Running” opened on Broadway in April 1992 and ran for over 160 performances. Lawrence “Larry” Fishburne starred in the production and won a Tony Award (Best Featured Actor in a Play) and a Drama Desk Award for his portrayal of Memphis Lee. Both Roscoe Lee Browne and Cynthia Martells were also nominated for their roles (respectively) of Holloway and Risa. “Two Trains Running” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992.