Two Trains Running at Penumbra Theatre

October 1, 2011
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James T. Alfred, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Crystal Fox and Kevin D. West in Two Trains Running. Photo by Ann Marsden.

August Wilson’s probing and evocative portrait of Black America and the African-American experience can be seen in this searing and inspired production of Two Trains Running (Penumbra Theatre, through October 30). It is the seventh play of Mr. Wilson’s 20thCentury Cycle that traces black American life decade by decade. Mr. Wilson’s play pulls into the station at a time when racial strife and the Vietnam War were bringing this country to its knees. It is Pittsburgh, 1969, and the Hill District is gentrifying as the wounded souls of Memphis Lee’s restaurant are grappling with the social upheaval of a world that is shifting rapidly around them and fighting back when they can. Memphis’ restaurant is the next building on the chopping block doomed for demolition after a recent city council vote to demolish all of the buildings within a twelve-block radius. When a stranger named Sterling—a newly released convict—comes to visit Memphis Lee’s he breathes new life into a community struggling with change.

Despite the fact that Mr. Wilson’s play takes place in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement it takes special care to avoid the major events and sacred lions that helped to define the era. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is mentioned only once and the march on Washington, Black Panthers, Vietnam, and Watts are never mentioned. From their perch at Memphis’ restaurant the inhabitants are too far removed from any semblance of justice that this period provided the African-American community. Instead, they put their hopes in playing the numbers, and not in political or cultural leaders planting seeds of change that they feel they may never reap.

Deftly staged by Penumbra Theatre founder and Artistic Director Lou Bellamy with a tightly cohesive, notably affective cast, and a pitch-perfect physical production to match, Two Trains Running represents part of Penumbra Theatre’s commitment to stage all ten of Mr. Wilson’s plays from his 20th Century Cycle. This play soars on the savory talk that has become Mr. Wilson’s signature. The magnificent storytelling not only paints a colorful portrait, but provides an in-depth study of a world veiled to those outside of it. Much of the talk is instigated by two deaths that infiltrate Memphis Lee’s restaurant.

Buoyed by the commanding performance of long-time Penumbra Company member James Craven as Memphis who is in the process of negotiating a price for the city’s demolition of his restaurant, he refuses to take anything less than his asking price. The incredible Abdul Salaam El Razzac, a founding member of Penumbra, is electrifying as Holloway, the retired house painter and armchair philosopher who waxes eloquent on the scourge of the white man exploiting black labor and the fallacy of the lazy Negro. “If it wasn’t for you the white man would be poor. Every little bit he got he got standing on top of you.” Anyone with an ax to grind he sends to the vivid and mysterious 322-year-old Aunt Ester, the mythic inhabitant of 1839 Wylie Avenue who is a spiritual healer who has a crucial but offstage impact on three lives in this play. West, played by Penumbra Company member Dennis W. Spears, is wonderful as the undertaker whose no-nonsense view of death has not only granted him keen observations when it comes to the machinations of the community, but it has also made him a wealthy businessman. These three are members of an older generation who’ve weathered life with skepticism.

Rounding out the men in this cast is the wonderful James T. Alfred as Sterling, a man “born with bad luck” who is sincerely looking to piece his post-penitentiary life back together brick by brick, but his efforts are constantly foiled, Penumbra Company members Kevin D. West as Wolf, the numbers runner, and Ahanti Young as the mentally disturbed Hambone, are sublime as Mr. Wilson’s unsung men.

The sole waitress, Risa, played with an exquisite blend of fire and ice by Crystal Fox, grieves for the recently deceased local evangelist Prophet Samuel, whose huge flock of followers is viewing his open casket across the street at West’s Funeral Home. Thematically, she is beguiling as the lone woman floating in this choppy sea of men in which she inexplicably bears self-inflicted razor scars.

Two Trains Running honors the vivid portrait of everyday lives shadowed by great events. The monologues, which are musical in language, are quintessential Mr. Wilson and tackle the noose of poverty and disenfranchisement that hangs around the neck of the Hill District. He seems to wrestle with the question as to who has the salve for a community on the verge of destruction: the secular or the religious? Beautifully designed by Vicki Smith (sets), Matthew J. LeFebvre (costumes), Martin Gwinup (sound), and Michelle Habeck (lighting), it is played to perfection by Mr. Bellamy’s cast.

Two Trains Running encapsulates a racially dividing country as a brutal future looms just around the corner.

The play runs approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Recommended.

 

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