Trains Running (August Wilson) P.565
The owner of the diner is waiting for his chance to go back south, and he knows that they got two trains running every day.
A numbers runner who sometimes uses the diner as his office.
The diner’s waitress and cook.
A regular who speaks out against the constant oppression of African Americans.
Just released from jail, he needs to find a way to make a living.
A man who stands up for what he believes he deserves.
The only wealthy man on stage owns the funeral home across the street.
Two Trains Running, set in 1969, is August Wilson’s most contemporary play to date. Like most of his plays, it unfolds in a single location–a diner in Pittsburgh. Memphis, the diner’s owner, is struggling to get a fair price from the city which is buying up the entire eighborhood for purposes of urban renewal. Memphis’ observation that the neighborhood has been emptied of its commercial and human activities gives an ironic and grim spin to urban renewal in particular and the progress of African Americans general.
The play asks the question: In the midst of unemployment, death, and a white power structure allowing few alternative, where do you look for salvation. Do you turn to Christianity, as embodies in the wealthy but deceased Prophet Samuel, or do you return to an older African spirituality embodied by the impossibly aged Aunt Ester? Perhaps salvation lays with Malcolm X and the black power movement, or with Wolf and the numbers game of a white Mafia.
A host of tragic figures inhabit the diner. Memphis’ struggle with the city is essential to his fate of returning south to get back the land cruel taken from his by white men. Sterling–just out of prison–is stymied in his attempts to, by any means possible, support himself. Risa, the waitress, has scarred her legs in an attempt to escape the prison of physical beauty. Finally, perhaps a symbol of them all, is Hambone. Tens years ago he painted the grocer’s fence, but was paid a chicken when he felt he had earned a ham. Every day for ten years he has confronted the grocer, requesting and demanding his ham, until by now the only phrases he utters are I want my ham. and He gonna give me my ham.
August Wilson’s 1992 play Two Trains Running is, in effect, a kinder, gentler version of Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. Both address racial tension between blacks and whites in the inner city and the violence that can accompany it, but in the play, these social ills are heard and not seen.
The cast of TheatreWorks’ current production creates a well-realized, if insular, environment that allows the audience to connect the characters. Wilson has created a compelling story line for each individual, and the fact that most of the stories have happy endings doesn’t seem contrived. On the contrary, their successes are representative of African Americans who broke through the color line during the civil rights movement.
Even a character like , the diner owner who treats his lone waitress, Risa , as a personal servant, redeems himself through his fight to get the city to pay him what he wants for his building, which is due to be demolished. Memphis plans to use the money to return to Mississippi and confront the white man who ran him off his land decades ago. Memphis’ story is at once heartrending and uplifting, as is Abdul-Rashid’s reading of it.
Michael McFall plays the key role of Sterling, an ex-con whose anger at not being able to get a leg up in the world is tempered by a youthful exuberance. It’s the latter quality that allows Sterling to woo Risa, a beautiful young woman who has scarred her legs to keep away men who want her for her body alone. Brembry’s Risa is world-weary in the extreme; she communicates mostly through sighs and piercing glances at whoever is yanking her chain at the moment.
Sterling and Risa’s love story is tender, but McFall is even better when his character befriends Hambone (Don C. Coles), a homeless man. Cheated out of a ham by a white butcher whose fence he painted, Hambone has spent the last nine years trying to collect his payment. His vocabulary has been reduced to a single sentence–I want my ham!–and the scenes in which Sterling helps him increase it to include statements like Black is beautiful are extremely powerful. The pride that keeps Hambone in the struggle is the most telling glimpse Wilson’s play offers into the shift from civil rights to Black Power.