Although August Wilson left the world too soon, he left behind a legacy: his eye-opening plays. The Goodman Theatre’s production of Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” was no exception to that legacy.
The entire play is set in a diner and follows the day-to-day lives of seven African-Americans in 1969 Pittsburgh. Wilson wrote the following about the play’s setting: “The action of the play takes place in a restaurant across the street from West’s Funeral Home and Lutz’s Meat Market. It is a small restaurant with four stools, a counter, and three booths lined against one wall. The menu is printed on a blackboard behind the counter.” In the casual setting, Wilson is able to focus on the characters’ daily lives, which is a glimpse that you can’t get much anywhere else.
The 1960s is a decade known for social tensions. From the Greensboro sit-ins to the march in Selma, Alabama, African-Americans were treated unequally; they had to fight for their rights. But what sets this play apart is that it doesn’t focus on the social tension on a large scale. It doesn’t have a mass riot scene. It doesn’t have a murder scene.
However, it does reference these large movements: A Malcolm X vigil is worked into the storyline, but the characters seem reluctant to attend. Again, that shows that although they want rights and a better life, they are ordinary people, not revolutionaries.
The play truly captures what living in that time period was like for the average African-America: the joys, the disappointments, and the waiting.
It shows how an ordinary black waitress, Risa (Nambi E. Kelley), no longer trusts the world around her because she has been let down too many times. She refuses to let anybody in her life, especially men. She has scarred her legs with a razor “in an attempt to define herself in terms other than her genitalia.”
It shows how a beloved character, Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.), wakes up determined every day that Lutz’s Meat Market will finally give him the ham he deserves. He comes off mentally unstable, but as another character notes, he might not actually be unstable – just completely determined to get what is rightly his. However, it’s much bigger than the ham. It is the right to the pursuit of happiness and the right to be treated with respect that African-Americans were still being deprived of.
In the 165-minute play, all the characters seem to be stuck in the diner, waiting for something good to happen, talking about the same goals and problems as they were the day before. Although director Chuck Smith intentionally wanted the character’s actions to seem dragging, the play was too long. It is difficult to remain absorbed in the play for that long because there wasn’t enough energy and instead too much repetition.
Also, the Goodman needs to raise the volume of the speakers in the back of the theater because it was difficult to hear the dialogue, which there was a lot of. The heart of the play is simply conversations between characters, with their repetitive actions and expressions accompanying those conversations.
Overall, the acting is strong. According to Nambi Kelley who spoke with me and other critics about her character hours before the show, it’s all about the “specificities,” and she seems to have mastered that. She gives Risa spunk and attitude by the way she flicks her waitress dish towel. Kelley said in an earlier interview that during her exploration of the character, she found Risa expressed herself using both hands equally to write – a trait audience members might not immediately notice. But Kelley feels the ambidextrous action helps underscore the dual sides of Risa’s personality – introverted but also outspoken.
Along with a glimpse into the 1960s, the play has a strong message about fighting for your dreams because in the end, although Hambone died fighting for it, he got the ham that was rightfully his. Wilson wrote the following stage directions to conclude the play: “Sterling enters carrying a large ham. He is bleeding from his face and his hands. He grins and lays the ham on the counter.” The play urges each and every viewer to go get their ham: a reminder we all need once in a while.