Are you African-American and/or a feminist? Do you believe in equal rights? Do you consider yourself a person who fights for what he/she believes in? Well, then, the current offering at the Goodman Theatre may be your cup of tea. Or may change your perspective of things.
An original tale based on unanticipated love, racism, gentrification and gender, August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” leaves the audience thrilled, enthusiastic and craving more.
Sterling (played by Chester Gregory), a charming young man, walks into the restaurant one day, but for him it’s no ordinary day. He had just gotten released from the penitentiary a few days earlier. He is determined to find a job, change his ways (or so he says) and buy a Cadillac. Although he is ecstatic about his freedom and second chance at life, he is feeling hopeless about finding a job.
From the beginning of the play, Sterling flirts with Risa (played by Nambi E. Kelley), the waitress, who ignores all his comments. Risa is a very guarded person, as if she holds a shield against her heart.
Risa has scars on her legs, which we later find out are the result of self-inflicted wounds. She cuts herself with a razor to discourage men. She has this detachment when it comes to relationships, especially with men. But this changes, surprisingly, soon after Sterling and Risa become close.
For a character who doesn’t speak much, Risa has a lot say. She does so in little gestures and short, sassy remarks. Her walk is exaggeratedly slow, and she flips her towel to show attitude.
However, when she does speak, she isn't always heard. Except for Sterling, the men mostly ignore or disrespect her. They refer to her as “woman” or “ baby,” or they say something like, “This is man’s talk, woman!” When Risa is talked about, she is objectified and degraded. They speak of her appearance and her body parts. You can understand why she might feel the way she does.
Wilson’s characters use the word “nigga” a lot, which might be hard for today’s viewers to stomach. As an African-American, I honestly hate being called “black.” But it doesn't make it better that they refer to each other as “niggas” or “negro.” African-Americans fought hard and long so that slavery wouldn’t continue, yet we’re the ones calling each other names.
The play is a bit hard to get into. The dialogue is fast, and the ghetto language hard to follow until you get used to it. Also, the plot and characters do not unfold gradually; rather, you are dumped into the middle of an ongoing day-in-the-life of the diner and you find yourself struggling to follow who said what and why. In the first act, I didn't understand a thing and I was easily distracted.
Instead of watching the play, I unintentionally drifted off. I also found myself watching an open window in the background; it seemed as if there was a fan on behind the curtains of the window. If this was part of the set designer’s intention, then I found it very distracting.
But once your ear becomes attuned to the way the characters speak, you discover a play filled with drama, suspense, and lots of laughter.
This is a masterful production of a great play. I especially loved the very stylish period costumes, designed by Brigit Rattenborg Wise. The setting , done by Linda Buchanan, was a diner in the late 1960s - a time when the jukebox held center stage.
The tables were small and round. The booths were short. The whole restaurant could only seat a dozen people at most. The door to the kitchen, when someone walked in or out, moved back and forth. The floor had a checkered pattern.
Overall, the set evokes a homey feeling while at the same time offering an exciting glimpse into life in the late 1960s. The globe lights, by John Culbert, hang high in the ceiling The changes of lighting effectively set the mood and tone of the play.
I especially liked the character of Risa. She is misunderstood yet beautiful and covers her beauty with scars because she’s hurting. Although Risa isnt quite close to perfection, she does have a kind and caring heart.
She is also the only one who takes care of Hambone (Ernest Perry Jr.). She sees past his “craziness” and his flaws, feeds him, talks to him and calms him down. She understands why he acts the way he does, and she accepts him.
A least favorite character of mine was the mysterious Mr. West (A.C. Smith). It is implied that he is a villain, but his character is only gossiped about.
Throughout the whole play gossip goes on about most of the characters, especially the ones that are hard to understand, and it always ends up drifting toward the issue of money. Every character desires to be someone or go somewhere, and all of this is impossible without money - something no one but West has much of.
Each time Wolf enters the diner he writes on the board a three-digit number - the winner of that day’s numbers game. Wolf is a friendly but mischievous numbers runner. In a way, he’s the delivery boy. Wolf walks in one day in his stylish, long, brown leather jacket and tells Risa to tell Sterling not to get upset.
The number he played - 781 - was not the big winner Sterling thought it was, because many others had played the same number. The news is explosive, because all of Sterling’s hopes and dreams are based on winning. He storms out with a pistol, leaving the audience holding their collective breath.
“Two Trains Running” is an outstanding play that I would rate four stars. Everyone should go see it. In fact, I recommend it for the whole family. This play might have characters that are all African-American, but it has a message for everyone.