August Wilson's Two Trains Running On All Cylinders
Also see Bob's review of Lend Me a Tenor
On its most direct and readily accessible level, Two Trains Running can be viewed as a rewarding and revealing, lightly plotted, often humorous, observational slice of life play in which almost all pivot events occur off-stage and are related in casual conversation. As such, it provides an unparalleled theatrical immersion into the lives and, in large part, generational differences in the attitudes of black Americans during a crucial era of change in the status of African Americans. The ease with which events and characterizations smoothly and seamlessly unfold can lead a casual viewer to overlook deeper, richer currents. However, pay close attention and you cannot miss the deep humanist and philosophical currents in Wilson's most overtly political, deeply philosophic and humanistic play. Furthermore, Two Trains Running encompasses a long view of the entire African-American experience with its consideration of earlier eras and foreshadowing of the future.
Two Trains Running is the pivotal sixth play (chronologically, it is the seventh, but the plays were not written in chronologic order) in August Wilson's ten-play cycle illuminating black Americans' lives throughout the 20th century. It is set in 1969 during a period of great turmoil and progress in America. It is but one year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and fifteen years of progress toward racial justice highlighted by the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (1954), the Civil Rights Act (1964) barring discrimination in employment and housing, and the Voting Rights Act (1965). Acts of civil resistance (boycotts, marches and demonstrations), an ascendant militant Black Power Movement, and inner city race riots dot the landscape. The consciousness and expectations of black Americans have been raised, and they will no longer tolerate racial injustice.
The setting is a Memphis Lee's modest diner style restaurant, across the street from West's Funeral Home and Lutz's Meat Market on Wylie Street in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is the neighborhood in which all but one of Wilson's Century/ Pittsburgh Cycle plays are set. The district has been roiled and depopulated largely as a result of the turbulence of the era. Much of it is being seized by Pittsburgh for demolishment for promised but uncertain urban renewal. Already failing due to these conditions, the entire block, including Memphis' restaurant, is in the process of being acquired for demolition by the city.
Memphis is in his late fifties. He was robbed of his farm and run out of Jackson, Mississippi, by racist manipulators back in 1931. He has since worked hard to attain self sufficiency, and now the exercise of eminent domain threatens to deprive him of the true value of his Hill District property. Yet, Memphis keeps himself aloof from the social foment around him. Although he is cynical and has yet to grasp the moment, he is not without sense when he opines:
Holloway, a retired house painter, is a repository of information on the history of the Hill District and its people as well as a sympathetic observer of the actions of those demanding justice.
The mentally impaired, middle-aged Hambone is an independent in his quest for justice. Almost 10 years ago the butcher Lutz hired Hambone to paint a fence. Lutz told him that he would pay him with a chicken. Lutz added that if Hambone did a good job he would pay Hambone with a ham. Hambone did a perfect job painting Lutz' fence, but Lutz was only willing to pay him with a chicken. Hambone refused to accept the chicken. Since then, Hambone has come to the meat market every morning and demanded his proper payment. Obsessed with this injustice, Hambone does not speak, other than to angrily and repeatedly scream: "I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham."
Holloway, says of Hambone:
A newcomer to Memphis' is the thirty-year-old Sterling who is returning to his old neighborhood after serving five years in the state penitentiary for bank robbery. Unable to find a suitable job, Sterling is determined not to do without or to work a menial job for inadequate recompense. He even purchases an illegal hand gun. However, Sterling is enthralled by the teachings of Malcolm X, the determination of Hambone, and the civil rights activism of his revitalized brothers and sisters the civil rights movement. While Sterling might slip back into trouble, it is increasingly likely that his new found pride in his people and passion for justice will be his salvation.
The attractive 30-year-old Risa, Memphis Lee's waitress, is fearful of contact with others, and neither dates nor participates in activist activity. To ward off carnal advances, Risa has scarred her legs with razor cuts. We never learn of any specific painful experience which might have led Risa to mutilate herself. However, in response to Sterling's attentions to her and his enthusiasm for justice, Risa slowly begins to shed her protective cloak.
Providing a further cross section of black Americans frequenting the diner are Wolf, an amoral young man in his thirties who comfortably keeps his head above water by working as a numbers runner for white mobsters, and undertaker West who operates his business with propriety, but uses his contacts with white manipulators to take care of himself at the expense of members of his own community.
Principal among the off-stage characters is disputably 349-year-old Aunt Ester. She is a legendary faith healer who is much respected in the community. This is the first time that Aunt Ester is mentioned in a Wilson play. However, Aunt Ester is mentioned in the eight and tenth plays and appears as a leading character in the ninth play, Gem of the Ocean, which is set in 1904. Wilson described her as the "most significant" character in his Pittsburgh/Century Cycle plays. The most likely interpretation for the significance of Aunt Ester is that she represents the history and culture of blacks in America, knowledge of which provides the ballast for the progress of black Americans. Wilson has since written that "Aunt Ester has emerged for me as the most significant persona of the cycle. The characters, after all, are her children."
Other important off-stage characters are Prophet Samuel, a charlatan preacher whose bilking of his followers continues unto his funeral; Bubba Baby who is arrested for stealing a dress in which to bury his beloved wife after she dies of a drug overdose; and the people of the Hill District uniting in their efforts to empower themselves.
Chuck Cooper convincingly portrays the changes in Memphis as he acquires the knowledge to better manipulate the power system in place, and gains the confidence which he requires to militantly seek the justice that he is due. Cooper has us rooting for this old dog who can learn new tricks.
The entire ensembleCooper, James A. Williams (Holloway), Anthony Chisholm (Hambone), Owiso Odera (Sterling), Roslyn Ruff (Risa), John Earl Jelks (Wolf) and Harvy Blanks (West)so naturally interact within the confines of Memphis' diner that this viewer became concerned about how they would fill their time after it was closed down.
Credit Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson for the integrated ensemble and giving Memphis' diner the feel of being an integral part of its surrounding neighborhood. The large, detailed, convincingly distressed set with its hilly street and upstairs windowed apartment back wall and the period costumes of Karen Perry complete the transporting stage scene.
Two Trains Running is a masterpiece of American theatre which any serious theatergoer should not miss. Furthermore, this pivotal and provocative play is a perfect starting point for anyone who has yet to see any of August Wilson's monumental Century/Pittsburgh Cycle plays.
Two Trains Running continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees.: Saturday & Sunday 3 pm) through March 3, 2013 at the Two River Theatre Company, Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre, 21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank 07701; Box Office: 732-345-1400 / online: www.trtc.org.
Two Trains Running by August Wilson; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson