Pulitzer Prize-winning author August Wilson is considered one of the most accomplished playwrights in history. His plays touch deeply on the human condition and Wilson’s work is timeless.
“Two Trains Running” is currently holding sway at Arena Stage this month. One of Wilson’s ten-play collection, “Two Trains Running” is set in 1969 amid the turbulent times of that era and explores the plight of African Americans in the wake of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., who represented a ray of hope a mere year before.
The play, a collaboration between Arena Stage and the Seattle Repertory Theatre is set in a Pittsburgh diner owned by the irascible Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee). Memphis has resilience, but he’s also harbors anger because of his painful past that unfolds during one of his soliloquies. That pain is juxtaposed with his determination to get what he feels is a fair price for his diner, slated for demolition. The other characters also have stories and their emotions percolate beneath the surface but come to the forefront during their conversations.
Sterling (Carlton Byrd), fresh out of the “penitentiary” after served time for robbing a bank, is seeking work, but seems to be foiled at every turn. At one point he comes up with the idea for a food truck partnership with Memphis but is quickly shot down. Sterling symbolizes the obstacles many continue to encounter after incarceration while trying to get back on their feet. Sterling has romantic aspirations as well and sets his eyes on Risa (Nicole Lewis) who seems wary of men and has cut her legs to appear less desirable. But Sterling seems undeterred and waits for his number to hit, so he can marry Risa. Sterling and Risa’s interaction strike comedic tones yet doesn’t veer far from the underlying messages.
Holloway (David Emerson Toney) continually waxes philosophical on the plight of the African American male and even traces his frustrations back to the first slave ship. Yes, he has a story for every situation. Holloway’s voice congeals the anger and frustrations felt during that era due to hardships and discrimination. Although some of Holloways’ musings come across in a comedic vein, the feelings bubbling under the surface is palpable.
Hambone (Frank Riley III) is mentally unhinged and stuck in a time warp, still seething from a years-long injustice of not being paid the ham he was promised for fixing a fence for a white store owner. His constant mantra, “I want my ham!” shouted each time he enters the diner is a fitting metaphor for the grievances of all diner residents. They want what’s due them: respect and human dignity.
Another figure never seen on stage, yet looming large, is Aunt Esther, the more than 300-year soothsayer who tells visitors to change their luck by tossing $20 in the river. She’s mentioned throughout the play and is seen as a way to access the luck they all so greatly want. Even Memphis Lee resorts to visiting Aunt Esther to help his dreams of financial success come true.
West (William Hall, Jr.), the funeral director, for all his dapper swagger and seeming wealth in contrast to the other residents, also has his own struggles. Dressed in black, including black gloves, the hard as nails businessman reveals his pain at the loss of his wife when he literally takes the gloves off and offers a soliloquy about death and loss.
Wolf (Reginald André Jackson) runs numbers out of the diner much to owner Memphis’ chagrin, but even Memphis places his money on the numbers, in hopes of making it big. Wolf also has an eye for Risa, which appears unrequited and creates some tension between he and Sterling.
The cast is a great ensemble that draws the audience into the lives of their characters. The costumes are appropriate and adds great value to the production. The set in its sparsity also helps to create the atmosphere of frustration and longing. “Two Trains Running” barrels down the tracks, unearthing the ethos of the 1960’s, and through its conversations also reveal, to the careful listener, that similar struggles continue to exist, albeit in other forms.
“Two Trains Running,” by August Wilson, directed by Juliette Carrillo runs through April 29 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. For tickets and information, visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.