Two Trains Running
Playwright August Wilson has consistently captured the history of America through his series of plays about the lives of black people. Two Trains Running is set in a small neighborhood restaurant in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1969. The place has jukebox which is usually broken and other difficulties that beleaguered, middle-aged owner Memphis must grapple with. The action and additional cast* of six moves and comes alive in this small space, where their personal troubles, hopes and dreams are explored and exposed in the light and darkness of the rough political and economic realities of those times.
The intense view into the lives of Memphis and his waitress Risa, a perennial customer Wolf, who is running numbers using the restaurant as a point of his operation, wise old friend Holloway, disabled Hambone, a funeral parlor owner West is engaging. The setting, music and language all reinforce the intimacy of the black community, as well as accurately portray similar small businesses throughout the country. I grew up in Oakland and spent time in similar neighborhoods in that time period. The play is truly authentic and recreates the vibe and what was going on back then. The songs selected for the play are wonderful reminders of that time. “You’re All I Need to Get By”, “I Fall Apart, Baby” and others sing volumes.
When a stranger named Sterling shows up at the restaurant, the lives of the other characters shift. Sterling is a young and unknown fellow who’s got plenty of game, and maybe not as much sense as Memphis, Wolf and Holloway would like. Risa is annoyed by his attention, but also friendly enough to him since he treats Hambone with good cheer. Risa’s rough life has left her in distain for men, but the childlike Hambone is someone she cares about. Hambone constantly raves about how he’s been cheated out of a ham he was promised years ago by a business owner across the street. Risa takes money from her tip jar to buy Hambone some coffee or beans when Memphis complains.
Each character is having problems, and Holloway recommends visits to “Aunt Esther”, a healer who lives nearby and claims to be 322 years old. Her remedies for personal troubles are wise, and they have a reputation of working, although some are resistant to her “RX” of throwing $20 bills in the river to elicit a “cure”.
I greatly enjoyed this play and so did the rest of the audience who gave a spontaneous and rousing standing ovation at the end. We felt like we knew these people and had struggled along beside them. We can relate because what was happening in the poor black communities back in the 1960s and 1970s is now happening to the middle class. The same issues of Catch-22 bureaucracies where there is a stranglehold on the means of making a living and the political climate where grassroots leaders of the people are ignored, discredited, jailed or killed and the disempowerment of the people through a lack of jobs, resources and multitude of means (not least of which is to utterly exhaust and complicate life) is repeating. There are some things we can envy about their situation; the camaraderie, the kidding, the light heartedness and faith of some of the characters and the boldness and brashness of others who represent their communal ability to cope and enjoy life even with hardship, while hoping, willing and working for change. Their circumstances are bleak enough that they recognize and declare “United We Stand, Divided We Fall”, a place and sense of things that the middle class has not yet embraced.
Making do with what’s available and with a thread of the line “Give me some sugar, Risa” continuing throughout the play, we instinctively know “sugar” is another name for love or a kiss. A Reverend must become a Prophet to bypass the system and carry a message. A restaurant owner must fight City Hall to get a fair price for his condemned property. Flowers stolen from a funeral become a romantic gesture from a man to a woman. These friends speculate on whether the Moon is getting closer, and foreshadowing the idea in the movie Melancholia, wonder whether the world will end.
These are the Two Trains Running. One moving forward, one leaving. We hear their plaintive whistles in the distant background. There are Two Trains Running, one is Love, the other is Death and no one escapes these travels and travails.
Catie Faryl, March 1, 2013 www.catiefaryl.net
*Cast and Crew
Memphis – Terry Bellamy
Wolf – Kenajuan Bentley
Risa – Bakesta King
Holloway – Josiah Phillips
Hambone – Tyrone Wilson
Sterling – Kevin Kenerly
West – Jerome Preston Bates