Two Trains Running

The August Wilson play at the Arden Theater in Philadelphia

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” is the 60’s installment of his Century Cycle plays that track African American life from each decade of the 20th century. “Train” is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1969 and concerns the lives, hopes and defeats of six African-American men and one woman who are about to be pushed out of their neighborhood by city developers.

The impending move is very personal to Memphis Lee, whose diner is on the chopping block. Despite business vanishing before his eyes, he will not be moved until he gets a fair price for his building.

Memphis was, after all, run off of his inherited land in the Jim Crow south 18 years previously and he escaped to Pittsburgh to rebuild his life. He keeps things going as he watches his old neighborhood disintegrating before his eyes. He serves a handful of regulars whose lives are similarly about to change.

Wolf is a young numbers runner who takes bets on Memphis’ payphone, but otherwise tries to run a clean illegal business. He gets along with Memphis until he pushes his luck.

Sterling has just returned to town after spending five years in prison for trying to hold up a bank. He is trying to turn his life around, but no jobs are available in this disappearing end of town. Wolf laments justice inequality that lands the inordinate number of black men in prison.

Hambone is a mentally challenged man who is fixated on not being cheated by the grocer across the street and spirals into psychosis much of the time, only to be brought back to fragmented reality by Risa, a waitress at the diner, who makes sure he is fed and clothed against the expressed orders of her boss.

Risa is very private and, except for Hambone, keeps to herself and in fact scarred her legs deliberately so men wouldn’t find her attractive. West is the local mortician who has become rich over the result of poverty and injustice and can play every angle to his benefit, but is at least up front about it.

Memphis’ constant customer Holloway, always with a cool new shirt and book in hand, rails against his Grandfather’s Uncle Tom ways and is otherwise a dispenser of measured wisdom. He advises everyone to visit Aunt Esther, supposedly 322 years old, and to toss $20 in the river to solve their problems. Esther is a mythic character who turns up in other Wilson plays.

Wilson brings the generational struggles of African-Americans into sharp focus through each of his characters lives, individually and collectively. They weigh-in on the growing local mobilization of the black civil rights movement and the new generation invested in the progressive strategies of the Black Power movement to confront racist America,

Raelle Myrick-Hodges directs this fine ensemble and lets Wilson’s masterful dialogue cycles breathe. It speaks volumes that except for one or two words, none of these characters utter obscenities. They have something more vital to say and Wilson is not wasting a second on filler jargon.

Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. turns in another intense and stirring performance as Memphis, who knows what he has been cheated out of and refuses to give up one more thing. Lakisha May gives a hypnotic as Risa, who unlike the other characters, doesn’t say much. When she does speak, it is short and direct. She has great antagonistic chemistry with Sterling, deftly played by U.R. as he unlocks his armored heart and courts her as his first move to build a new life.

Darian Dauchan is equally dynamic as Wolf, the hard luck numbers jockey just trying to keep it together until his real number comes in. Kash Goins is confined to a few repeated lines, but communicates so much physically and emotionally. E. Roger Mitchell’s gives West, the mortician, edgy charm as he keeps offering to buy Memphis out at a slightly higher price than the city is offering. Damien J. Wallace, a veteran of several regional productions of Wilson’s “Fences” “The Piano Lesson” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” turns in another stellar performance as Holloway.

David P. Gordon’s set design with period restaurant detail, from the worn leather-seat booths to vintage cigarette machine and perpetually busted jukebox, keeps giving. The fragments of tunes that do come through are vintage soul classics and are especially synced to Xavier Pierce’s stylish and atmospheric lighting design.

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