WASHINGTON, D.C. – August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” is onstage at D.C.’s Arena Stage through earlyMay and has a superb cast to match Wilson’s masterful storytelling.
A collaboration between Arena and the Seattle Repertory Theatre, this 1960s set piece is from Wilson’s 10-play cycle charting the African American experience in the historic Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pa. through each decade of the 20th century. Based on Wilson’s own inner city roots in the Hill District, the play uses a cast of different personalities to make a statement on the social, political and economic challenges facing Black America in the 1960s - just when the Black Power Movement and the Civil Rights Movement faced off.
“Two Trains Running” delves into issues that range from the impact of urban renewal and eminent domain on a neighborhood to how one can change their luck and have a more meaningful life. At the core of the play, however, is a search for personal freedom and human dignity. The characters include Memphis Lee (brilliantly portrayed by Eugene Lee), a restaurant owner whose building is about to be torn down by the city and he is determined to settle for nothing less than $25,000. Risa (Nicole Lewis) is a waitress at the restaurant who is quiet, kind and beautiful, but one who cuts and scars her legs to keep men from coming on to her. Outstanding in the role, Lewis brings a balance to the remaining male characters.
These include Reginald Andre Jackson who plays Wolf, the local numbers runner for gangsters, who has an eye for Risa, but has competition when the cocky Sterling (Carlton Byrd) strolls into the restaurant, fresh out of prison. Jackson and Byrd are both excellent in their roles.
Rounding out the talented cast are David Emerson Toney as Holloway, a retired painter who frequents the restaurant doling out philosophy on how to change one’s luck by visiting a 322-year-old spiritist named Aunt Esther.
William Hall, Jr. as West, the wealthy local undertaker who tries to cheat Memphis by offering him $15,000 for his restaurant and Frank Riley, III as Hambone, a mentally unbalanced local who each day demands a white store owner to “Gimme my ham” in payment for painting a fence nine years ago. He was offered only chicken because the butcher felt that the job was poorly done. Hambone is unrelenting in his daily demand and frequents the restaurant to scream out his frustration.
The strength of the play is in how these characters deal with black oppression when an unfair system is stacked against them and when each has their own inner pain that they have been carrying for years. An example is when we learn that Memphis was forced to leave his Mississippi farm because of intimidation. When he tells how men cut out the belly of his mule, but states that he will go back someday to reclaim his land, the injustice is searing.
A forewarning: Wilson uses the slang for the onstage dialect, so if you find the N-word offensive, know that it is bandied about with comic ease. The play, with its larger message of common, working folk just wanting financial and social equality, however, should prove to be worth the price of admission.