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Chicago by John Olson

Two Trains Running
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's review of Picture Imperfect


Chester Gregory and Nambi E. Kelley
A particular benefit of living amidst Chicago's vast professional theatre community is that community's dedication to performing the work of August Wilson. A season rarely has gone by without a Wilson play on somebody's schedule, whether from the Goodman, the Court, Pegasus, or Congo Square. The Goodman, the city's largest non-profit professional theater, was an early supporter of Wilson and has had a long history with the playwright. In 1986, they produced a Fences with James Earl Jones that went on to Broadway and a Pulitzer Prize. Seven Guitars and Gem of the Ocean both premiered at the Goodman and in 2007, and their pre-Broadway Radio Golf gave the company bragging rights as the first to produce all ten of Wilson's "Century Cycle" plays. Fittingly, the Goodman has included Two Trains Running in its 90th Anniversary season and it's a stunner of a production, including both local and out-of-town talent in key roles.

Two Trains Running is set in 1969, with all the action occurring in a diner targeted for demolition by the city of Pittsburgh. The owner, Memphis (Terry Bellamy), is a 60-ish veteran of the great migration when African-Americans moved north in search of jobs. Memphis' journey north occurred after he was cruelly run off his Mississippi farm by whites who envied his success. He's been determined to one day return to Jackson, Mississippi, on one of the "two trains running" daily down south from Pittsburgh and exact retribution for that wrong. He's particularly determined not to let history repeat itself when the city's right of eminent domain to purchase his building threatens to, in essence, chase him off his land once more. This time, "they got to meet my price," he vows.

The theme of righting past wrongs is present throughout the play. Another regular of the diner, a demented old man called Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.) who believes he was cheated out of a ham promised as payment by the neighborhood butcher, has spent the last nine and a half years trying to exact that payment. After visiting the butcher each morning to demand the ham he says is due, he says nothing the rest of the day to others except for "He got to give me my ham!" Memphis observes that Hambone may be the sanest of them all for his unwavering determination to get what is due him—unlike Memphis himself who back in Mississippi retreated from his confrontation with the Mississippi white men who drove him off his land.

In addition to these character-specific, symbolic representations of oppression, in Two Trains Running, Wilson makes some of his most direct criticisms of racial inequality in this country. Holloway (Alfred H. Wilson), a 65-year friend and customer of Memphis, notes the injustice in the oft-stated opinions of some whites that blacks are lazy and don't want to work "People kill me talking about niggers is lazy. Niggers is the most hard-working people in the world. Worked three hundred years for free. And didn't take no lunch hour." And decrying the scarcity of jobs for black men in 1969 Pittsburgh, he says, "All of a sudden when they got to pay niggers, ain't no work for him to do."

Wilson keeps Two Trains Running from becoming an angry political diatribe through his humor, sharply delivered here by director Chuck Wilson's cast. The action, all taking place in Memphis' restaurant, is reminiscent of sitcoms like "Cheers" with patrons coming and going, though this play is funnier than that. Much of the humor comes from Chester Gregory's honest portrayal of Sterling, a 30-year-old recently released from prison for robbing a bank who, in spite of his complete lacks of means, retains a sense of optimism and even innocence. He quickly develops a crush on the embittered waitress Risa (Nambi E. Kelley) and his relentless certainty that he will marry her in spite her reticence is funny and charming. Musical theater fans who may know Gregory from Hairspray, Tarzan, Sister Act or Crybaby on Broadway, or from his sensational turn as James Early in the recent national tour of Dreamgirls, will be impressed by his work here in a straight dramatic role.

There's humor as well in the banter between Risa and Memphis, when Risa's realism and honesty runs up against Memphis' ego. All the characters have heart—even the slippery numbers-runner Wolf (Anthony Irons) has respect for the people at the diner. Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.) is mentally impaired and gently ridiculed, but the others still show affection for him. There's an underlying bond between Memphis and West (A.C. Smith), the successful undertaker of the neighborhood (Pittsburgh's Hill District, the location of all but one of the Century Cycle plays), even in the midst of Memphis' competitiveness and resentment of the affluent West. West is going to make money, Memphis says, because in this neighborhood "ain't nothin' gonna be left but niggers killing one another. That don't never go out of style. West gonna get richer and everyone else gonna get poorer."

Holloway speaks of the soul-cleansing he got from the supposedly 349-year-old Aunt Ester (who's mentioned in Wilson's King Hedley II and Radio Golf and appears in Gem of the Ocean). Holloway saw Aunt Ester to relieve him of his desire to kill his grandfather, who collaborated with white men to harm blacks. Holloway says that the mystical Aunt Ester "got all that bad energy off me," suggesting Wilson is not promoting revenge in this play, just justice and restitution.

Two Trains Running, set in the decade in which the civil rights struggle took off and the white majority finally had to take notice, is about the need for restitution, but there are larger existential themes as well. The spectre of death is present throughout. As it opens, a wake is in progress offstage for a religious figure called Prophet Samuel. The undertaker West appears onstage in his trademark formal black suit. The Hill District is dying—with its businesses closing and buildings being demolished. The characters are struggling; Holloway and Memphis have struggled over the course of their lives. Younger people like Wolf, Sterling, and Risa are barely getting by through low-paying jobs and illegal activities. One of the characters dies alone. There's a sense of the lonely and sad journey life can be without friendship and love.

Two Trains Running is a rich play, and accordingly it's a long one. The opening night performance ran over three hours, so be prepared for a long evening that will require some deliberate concentration, as entertaining and funny as much of it is. Had Wilson trimmed it by 30 minutes, it might be a more accessible play, but given Wilson's untimely death at age 60, we should be happy to enjoy as many of his words as we can. Chuck Smith's production is nearly flawless, save for some intelligibility problems early in the first act. Whether it was too much fidelity to the accents, or the need to adjust my ear to them, I found much of the long expository speeches in the first scene to be difficult to understand. Coming into the play relatively cold, it took a while to get caught up in the story.

Apart from that, though, this is a vibrant production. Linda Buchanan's detailed set of the diner and the changing neighborhood outside sets the picture for this mostly realistic play (your view of its degree of realism will depend upon how literally you take the idea of a 349-year-old Aunt Ester). Birgit Rattenborg-Wise's costumes and the Motown hits compiled by sound designers Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli are period-perfect, and the glow of John Culbert's lighting gives the feeling of an early autumn day, adding to the general feeling of decline.

Two Trains Running is the centerpiece of a citywide celebration of August Wilson led by the Goodman. Along with six other companies, they're presenting concert readings all over Chicago of the other nine plays in the Century Cycle, as well as various lectures on Wilson and his legacy. The night after the opening of Two Trains Running, I attended the Goodman's superb reading of Fences, with A.C. Smith, who played Troy in the Court's 2006 production, repeating his role and Regina Taylor as Rose. Also in that cast were Irons and Perry of Two Trains Running and Anthony Flemming III, Angelica Herndon, Julian Parker, and Tania Richard. Seeing that reading, directed by Ilesa Duncan, I was able to complete my viewing of all ten of the Cycle plays over about 14 years—all but one in Chicago and all in top-notch productions.

Opportunities to see Wilson continue to abound in this area as Court Theatre has announced a production of Gem of the Ocean for next season and the Milwaukee Rep, just 90 miles to the north, will stage Fences under the direction of Lou Bellamy, founding director of Penumbra Theatre in Minnesota, one of Wilson's earliest collaborators. Those who haven't discovered Wilson yet will have plenty of opportunities to jump on the "train" and get see this American master performed by some masterful companies.

Two Trains Running will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago through April 19, 2015. Tickets ($37 - $80; subject to change) are on sale at GoodmanTheatre.org, by phone at 312.443 .3800 or at the box office (170 North Dearborn).


Photo: Goodman Theatre

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-- John Olson



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