Thursday, January 31, 2019

Two Trains Running by August Wilson: A Review

We saw the Arizona Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running last week. It was the seventh play in Wilson’s ten play Pittsburgh Cycle and premiered in New York in 1992. It was directed by one of the Deans of Wilson production, Lou Bellamy. I remember seeing some of his work at the Penumbra theatre in Minneapolis/Saint Paul while a grad student at the U. of Minnesota. He was good then and is good now.

The play is set in a run-down restaurant run by a black businessman named Memphis played with a little too much volume and too little diction by James Craven. It is the 1960s, and the neighborhood is heading into major economic re-development and gentrification. This so called positive piece of urban planning had the effect of moving out whole communities of urban blacks who had mostly come up from the south and had built new lives with manufacturing jobs and by starting small businesses.

In Wilson's play some of the last hangers on in the community congregate at the restaurant, which now always seems out of short ribs and chicken. This leaves the patrons with only beans and toast. The good times are “going going gone.”

All except one of the remaining characters are male. Aside from Memphis, who is holding out for top dollar from the city for his now condemned property, we have Wolf, a bookie who works in the numbers racket, Holloway, a retired painter, and Sterling, a young black man just out of prison, who still sees the world as a fiddle that if played slyly will get him a Cadillac rather than another term in the big house.

Then there is the local funeral director, Mr. West. He is doing better than most because more people are dying here than living. On the side he also has been buying up buildings at cheap rates and then setting them on fire to collect the insurance money. He is currently now low-balling Memphis to get his restaurant. Maybe that’s why he always wears gloves. No sense dirtying your hands even if you are screwing your own people. One critic called him, “the Demon of urban renewal.”

In my mind the two most sympathetic characters are Risa, the restaurant cook and waitress and a retarded vagrant named Hambone. Both have assumed protective veneers in an attempt to insulate themselves from the life around them. Risa slow walks through her life while being constantly berated by Memphis. She has slashed her legs with a razor to help defer the attention of men but still remains a symbol of the time when especially black women were under-appreciated and often unseen by men. Clean, cook, and make babies; that was the drill and it is seen here.

Hambone, in some ways the lynchpin of the play, seems to represent all the downtrodden folks who have and will continue to suffer under a system that has little to offer them. His signature line "I want my ham" ultimately juices the entire work and manages to bring feeling to everyone. 

The production is finely tuned by Bellamy though some of the actors' voices get lost when the men start shouting at each other. Otherwise they tend to talk, gossip, and argue in a convincing manner. Some critics have noted that the characters don't really engage the more violent aspects of the late sixties, although there is talk about going to a demonstration. Wilson has responded by saying that he was not interested in writing “what white folks think of as American history for the 1960’s.” He was interested in making the point that “by 1969 nothing has changed for the black man."

Finally, I must admit that what I remember most about the experience was a developing awareness that we were sitting in a theatre chock full of well-off elderly white people watching six actors of color trying their best to portray an aspect of American history that no one in the audience could honestly say they had experienced or been able to experience. Judging by the number of empty seats after intermission, I think it is safe to conclude that the racial divide may still be alive and well in 21st century America. Somehow the standing ovation given at the end of the show didn't quite assuage my feeling that we still are in need of progress.    


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