If you’re dying to know what life― emotionally and physically― was like in late 1960’s black communities of Pittsburgh, you won’t need to build a time machine in your garage. Come to the Goodman instead, and see one of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” plays, “Two Trains Running.”
As the other nine plays in Wilson’s “Century Cycle” (10 plays set during 10 different decades in America) do, “Two Trains” captures a moment in time for African Americans with poetic style and resonating soliloquies.
Armed with an amazingly detailed set, (by Linda Buchanan), it’s a story wrapped around one place: a once successful dinner owned by a man named Memphis (Terry Bellamy), in a downtrodden neighborhood being torn asunder in the name of “urban restoration.” Although the diner doesn’t “go through four cases of chicken” in three days like it used to, the diner door never stops opening and shutting. It’s a revolving door for a group that just has nothing better to do than wake up everyday and get a little poorer.
Along with Memphis and waitress Risa (Nambi E. Kelley) there’s the world’s friendliest bet taker, Wolf (Anthony Irons); self-appointed philosopher Holloway (Alfred H. Wilson), and most prosperous among them undertaker West (A.C. Smith). All of them are tolerant of Hambone, (Ernest Perry Jr.), a man who (very very loudly) will not forget what’s owed to him even after nine-plus years: “I want my ham! He gon’ give me my ham!”
What does bother them however, is the arrival of Sterling (Chester Gregory) a young man hot out of lockup who’s trapped by delusional dreams of grandeur and a reality where he doesn’t even have a job. Gregory does a good job of portraying the unbalanced nature of Sterling, an idealist drawn to the Black Power movement and upsetting the routines of diner regulars.
A natural rhythm flows through Wilson's dialogue. And thanks to the actors’ ability to match it and director Chuck Smith’s ability to complement it, the play’s pace is relentless and intentionally unsettling. This is the subtle mastery of Wilson, his ability to craft a dialogue-driven play that manages to address the frightening assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and other key issues of the late 60’s. Lines of dialogue are repeated and repeated; quiet moments are disturbed by a man yelling for his ham.
The only element of this that doesn’t quite work is the only woman in the cast, waitress Risa’s slow-sauntering, molasses-voiced manner. For sake of a pun, Nambi E. Kelley “hams” up her role to the point where it becomes distracting. If this was an intentional choice to make Risa stand out it wasn’t a good one.
So why did the Goodman decide to revive “Two Trains Running” out of all of Wilson’s plays? Maybe it was special atmospheric quality that it brings to the stage. We get the sense of swirling clouds of violence, urban poverty, winners, losers and mysteries the play uses as a backdrop without directly showing it. It evokes moods by indirect discussion of death, poverty, politics and financial crisis. But mostly, “Two Trains Running” is a celebration of August Wilson’s unique contribution to American playwriting, as “Two Trains” is often recognized as his most personal play. You won’t be disappointed.