August Wilson’s 1990 play Two Trains Running transports us back to a Pittsburgh Hill District that no longer exists – in fact, it takes us to the very point in time when the city was using its powers of eminent domain to finalize its shredding of the neighborhood. It’s a play about that neighborhood: about the struggles residents held in common, and about the different ways individuals within the community faced their common challenges and frustrations.
Our window into that time and place is a restaurant owned by Memphis (Brian D. Coats), where locals gather to grab a bite, get the local gossip, and even do a little business. Those locals include Holloway (Justin Emeka, who also directed the production), a retired painter who is also the resident philosopher; Wolf (Brian Starks), a hep-cat type who runs numbers, often using the restaurant phone to do his business; Risa (Melessie Clark), the restaurant’s put-upon waitress; the mentally-challenged Hambone (Ananias J. Dixon); the wealthy funeral home owner West (Wali Jamal); and newcomer Sterling (Brenden Peifer), who has just been released from the penitentiary after doing time for bank robbery. For the most part, these are characters who know each other well, and under Emeka’s direction the excellent ensemble establishes an easy rhythm to their interactions that solidifies the impression that these are folks who have a lot of shared history. The sense that we are eavesdropping on a slice-of-life is underscored by scenic designer Richard Morris Jr.’s decision to place the action in the round – both play and production offer a rich three dimensional realism, one that is bolstered by Alethia Moore-Del Monaco’s spot-on costume design.
Two Trains Running is not a very plot-driven play; rather, it invites us to become invested in its characters and care about their strivings, and in particular about their desire to be treated with fairness and live with dignity. For Memphis, this takes the form of a demand that the city pay him $25,000 for his property, and “not a penny less.” The idea that he might be cheated out of what he rightly deems his due – by either the white folks downtown, or by West, who wants the property so that he can consolidate his holdings and leverage a larger payout for himself – sends him into an apoplectic rage more than once during the play. For Hambone, the desire for equitable treatment comes in the form of a debt he is owed by the white grocery owner Lutz, who nine years previously had promised him a ham in return for painting his fence and then reneged on the deal. Sterling just wants a job so that he can get his life back on track, but he is stymied by the Catch-22 of union membership: to work at the steel mills, he needs to be a union member, but to become a union member he needs to get a steel mill job.
These personal frustrations play out against a history and backdrop of racist oppression, and Wilson makes a point of showing that the sting of racism is sharp no matter how brutal or mild a form it takes. Memphis’s bitter outrage over the possibility that he might not be fairly paid for his property finds justification in the harrowing story he tells of having been violently driven from his land in the South decades earlier: he wears the trauma of that injustice like a gloomy cloak. Hambone’s obsession about getting the ham he is owed has a comic dimension, but the blow to his dignity is just as profound: as Holloway observes, “he ain’t willing to accept whatever the white man throw at him.”
The world of the play is also filled with richly imagined characters we never see: like the recently-deceased Prophet Samuel, who is lying in state in a coffin stuffed with money and jewels and whose devoted followers line up around the block to visit him one last time; or the mysterious Aunt Ester, who claims to be 322 years old and who, according to Holloway, has the power to “straighten you out”; or Buddy Boy, who is unable to attend his own wife’s funeral because he was arrested stealing a dress to bury her in. All of these figures appear in stories that the on-stage characters share with the same air of matter-of-factness that they use to place wagers on numbers or put sugar in their coffee, and the very casualness of their evocation of the complicated tapestry of the community makes this play feel poignant and bittersweet: the characters know that they are living through a transition, but they don’t know, as we do, the full dimension of what is about to be lost.