Both heart-wrenching and exuberant, “Two Trains Running” is a joy to watch.
Playwright August Wilson’s poetic dialogue wafts over an audience. He creates a lyrical spell that suspends time with a ubiquitous hunger for truth, acceptance, and equality.
Every character becomes a musical instrument. Together they come together, each with an individual rhythm and cadence that blend like a symphony of blues.
Directed by Juliette Carrillo, Seattle Repertory Theatre is presenting Wilson’s 1992 drama, “Two Trains Running,” in association with Arena Stage. It runs through Feb. 11 at the Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre.
Wilson focuses each of his 10 powerful Century Cycle plays on a different decade of the 20th century, shining a light on what he considered an endless struggle for African Americans. And his slice-of-life dramas are always set in his beloved Hill District in Pittsburgh, where he was born and raised.
His storylines range from picturesque and touching to angry, bitter and humorous. In his plays, he creates a roster of characters — musicians, aging athletes from the Negro Leagues, cabdrivers, ex-cons, matriarchs, and even spirits. They’re not celebrities, but proud down-to-earth people with a festering anger about their economics and social circumstances. His symphony of words endows his characters with glorious and poignant soliloquies — often showstoppers — poetic explosions, full of passion, rage, and sorrowful climax — the underbelly and legacy of slavery.
“Two Trains Running” unfolds in a historic neighborhood diner in Pittsburgh that is threatened by redevelopment. The time is 1969, a year since Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and four years since Malcom X met the same fate. And now, racial conflicts and the Vietnam War have engulfed our nation in turmoil.
Wilson's garrulous characters in “Two Trains” hang out in a small, seen-better-days diner owned by a man named Memphis Lee. At a critical moment in the tumultuous Civil Rights movement, Memphis is being forced to sell his restaurant to the city of Pittsburgh. But he’s confident he can beat the white man at his own game. Meanwhile, urban renewal eats away at the foundation of his Hill District neighborhood.
Once upon a time Memphis’ eatery was jam-packed with customers. No more. Once upon a time, the jukebox sang out with Billie (Holiday), Louis (Armstrong) Ella (Fitzgerald), Billy (Eckstine), Sarah (Vaughn), and Dinah (Washington). No more. Once upon a time, Hill District was a thriving black neighborhood. No more.
Every day, a small and diverse group of black men gather at Memphis’ diner. 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 frontpiece of the script reads, "If the trains don’t hurry, there's gonna be some walking done."
Each player has a backstory. Memphis (the tour de force Eugene Lee), a sharecropper who lost his land to avaricious white businessmen in the early 1930s. When he found water on his land, they burned his crop. And when that didn’t work, they slashed his mule’s stomach. He walked away, vowing he would return for his land someday. Hambone (a woeful Frank Riley III), a mentally-fogged man, wants the side of ham he was promised years ago for a painting he did for a local butcher. And for the last 10 years, he has stood in front of the butcher’s shop every day from dawn till dusk, crying out,” I want my ham.” Wolf (the rascally Reginald Andre Jackson), a streetwise, leather-jacketed hustler and numbers runner. He does business out of the Memphis diner payphone, comes and goes as he pleases.
New to the scene is Sterling (a passionate Carlton Byrd), young, fast-talking, wannabe hotshot just out of prison — he robbed a bank cuz he was “tired of waking up every day with no money.” He’s determined to recruit for a rally, look for a job, and find a woman to love him. Holloway (a laid-back David Emerson Toney), a retired house painter and armchair philosopher who hated his grandfather for being an Uncle Tom, rhapsodizes with wisdom about life and its consequences.
West (the suave William Hall Jr.), a wealthy undertaker whose mortuary is across the street from the diner He wants to buy the diner, so he can sell it to the city and make a hefty profit. He’s always dressed in black, even his gloves and he drops by daily with another offer for Memphis’ eatery. With his presence, the philosophical conversation turns to death.
And Risa (a convincing Nicole Lewis), the waitress/cook with self-inflicted scars on her legs, adds a few pithy remarks. She follows the self-declared Prophet Samuel, an evangelist whose worldly goods include a stash of jewelry, a white Cadillac, and a huge flock of worshipers. Holloway denounces Prophet Samuel and muses that Risa cut herself as protection from unwanted overtures, perhaps as a result of a tragic assault when she was a young girl.
Certain devices are guaranteed in a Wilson play. With drama comes humor. There will also be a nutter, as the British say, a Shakespearean fool that spouts wisdom; a ghost that the characters revere; a woman — there is usually only one, and she will steal a scene with her stream-of-conscious dialogue; and a character with scars, physical or psychological, hidden or exposed — or both — shielding a story of pain, endurance, identity, courage, sorrow, and grief. Or, all of the above.
In “Two Trains,” there is much talk about a character named “Aunt Ester,” who is never seen. She makes her mythical debut in “Two Trains,” but she will not appear onstage until “Gem of the Ocean,” the ninth play of Wilson’s Cycle. She is a symbol of black priestesses, dating back to 1619, the year the first shipment of African slaves were delivered to Virginia.
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?”
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.”
Over the course of his life, Wilson won numerous awards: Pulitzer Prizes for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” The seventh play of his Century Cycle “Two Trains Running” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
As an audience, we are at first observers. Wilson’s seven players invade our souls until we feel as though we too are sitting in that diner, hoping for an epiphany. Wilson’s musical dialogue, Juliette Carrillo’s superb direction, and Misha Kachman’s authentic set combine perfectly with a brilliant ensemble of actors who bring their characters to life.
This critic has seen his entire Century Cycle and vastly admires it, but some critics complain about his unrestrained dialogue. Undaunted, Wilson replies: “My plays are talky; I say shut up and listen.”
And we did.
“Two Trains Running" runs Tuesday-Sunday through Feb. 11 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Theatre; tickets start at $17; discounted tickets for groups of 10 or more may be purchased by calling 206.443.2224. For ticket reservations, call the Seattle Repertory Theatre Box Office at 206.443.2222, toll-free at 877.900.9285, or online at seattlerep.org