By 1969, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were dead. The nightly news was full of Vietnam, sit-ins, marches, madness. In 1969, we went to the moon, Woodstock “happened”, and Charles Manson put his demented murderous scheme into action. But in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh, the news was local.
“Two Trains Running”, August Wilson’s seventh play in his ten-play “Pittsburgh Cycle”, explores the African-American experience in the cultural whirlpool of the late 1960s. Like most of Wilson’s oeuvre, it takes place in one interior setting among friends and acquaintances who bring their own angle to the theme of the decade. Wilson’s theme for 1969 is recompense – getting what you’re owed on age-old debts. Sometimes the debtor is a wily business owner; sometimes the debtor is Life itself.
Memphis Lee’s diner, an established neighborhood eatery in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, is about to be bought by the city and demolished. Memphis (Eugene Lee) put everything he had into making it successful, and it was – until Urban Renewal arrived. Now his fight is with the city to get the price he wants, not what the city has offered to pay. Lee, as the center of the story, brings an intelligent energy to his determination not to be driven away unfairly, as his family was once driven off their farm in the deep South.
Wilson’s trademark dialogue, the shot and ricochet of familiar banter, keeps “Two Trains Running” at under three hours, with peaks and lulls but no dead air. Into the diner come the familiar locals to drink coffee, hear the news, and maybe put a dollar on the numbers racket. That numbers runner is Wolf (Reginald Jackson), who uses the diner pay phone to do business. Memphis knows the legal dangers to his business, and a few of the flair-ups begin with a pay phone ringing in the corner.
Everyone courts Luck in his own way. Some pay a dollar to rub the head of “Prophet Samuel” lying in his coffin across the street at West’s funeral home. Rumor has it that jewels and hundred dollar bills are tucked in the coffin with him, but the sharp-eyed, ever practical West (William Hall, Jr.) scoffs at that notion. There is something of the shark about West, groomed in sleek black and ready with a smooth offer for Memphis’s property. We somehow know the offer is not meant to do Memphis a favor.
Retired house painter and poor man’s philosopher, Holloway (David Toney) sits at “his” table and directs everyone with a problem to take it to Aunt Ester. She’s the 322- year-old gypsy behind the red door who solves everyone’s problems by telling them to throw twenty dollars in the river. Like numbers playing, the luck starved patrons scoff at this kind of magic, but most of them try it anyway.
Director Juliette Carrillo, working with a clearly defined, dynamic cast, plays the personalities, undertones, and through lines like a piece of classical jazz. Sterling (Carlton Byrd), young and hungry and just released from prison for robbery, is a man on the make. That flair for recklessness has been sharpened to wariness, but when he looks at Risa, he thinks he sees a future. He also brings a shot of enthusiasm to the memorial rally for Malcolm X, an event which symbolizes the new activism, and which Memphis disdains as a waste of time.
Memphis’s waitress, Risa, (Nicole Lewis) serves coffee, fills sugar containers, and dishes out beans with the stolid quiet of a woman who has learned the hard way to be nobody’s fool. It’s been noted before that Risa holds a singular position in the play. The black men all have their grievances from years of dealing with white men’s rough upper hand, but Memphis orders her around in the same way, alternating demands with complaints.
And then there’s Hambone (Frank Riley III). His daily habit of rushing in and ranting “He gonna gi’ me my ham!” is a nuisance to everyone but Risa, who takes a personal interest in caring for him. Twenty years earlier he was cheated by Lutz, a white butcher, who gave him a chicken instead of a ham for painting his fence. Hambone lives in this endless loop of futilely demanding his recompense until even Sterling tries to teach him something new – “Black is Beautiful.”
Misha Kachman’s set details the moribund little café right down to the steaming pot of beans, but it is an unfortunate reality of the arena configuration that those of us on one side cannot see the face of the antique Rock-ola juke box in the corner. It matters because “being fixed”, as Memphis claims, didn’t fix it until it has its own magic moment of lighting up for Risa and Sterling.
Produced in collaboration with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, “Two Trains Running” lacks the intense family conflict of “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences”, yet maintains a steady focus on the twin tracks of past and present, the long, soul-corroding effects of debts unpaid, and the liberation of accounts finally received.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Two Trains Running” by August Wilson
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 488-3300 or visit arenastage.com
Playing through April 29