KPBS AIRDATE: March 21, 1991
If you’ve been feeling bludgeoned by the sixties lately, don’t worry. Even though that’s the decade playwright August Wilson is up to in his chronicle of black America in the 20th century, “”Two Trains Running” is no heavy-handed black power polemic.
It’s more a simple slice of life, with the sixties serving as a sort of blurry background. Malcolm and Martin are only mentioned once or twice. Life goes on as usual in Memphis Lee’s Pittsburgh restaurant, circa 1968. Business is slow; mostly, it’s just the regulars who come for coffee or pie, sitting for awhile to ruminate — or agitate. Nothing much happens. And that’s the major problem.
But the characters are rich and colorful. They represent a microcosm of 1960’s black society.
Memphis , whose restaurant is about to become fodder for urban renewal, is conservative and law-abiding, but he’s willing to fight City Hall to get every penny he deserves for the premises. West has mastered the machinations of the white system; he’s a wealthy undertaker, and he’s not giving anything away. Wolf, the numbers-running wheeler-dealer, uses the black underground to make his way, taking the final dime from his comrades, for a promise of fortune.
The shuffling, repressed cook and waitress, Risa, was so afraid to get sucked into any system that she disfigured her legs to pull herself out of the running.
Poor Hambone is locked into the slave mentality. For ten years, all he’s done is wail for the ham he’s owed for a paint job he did for the white butcher across the street.
And through all of this, old Holloway sits back in his booth and philosophizes. He gets the will to go on from the most interesting character of all — Aunt Ester, the spiritual guru who’s somewhere between 320 and 350 years old. Too bad Wilson keeps all his energizing supernaturalism off the stage this time.
The only action in the play stems from Sterling Johnson, who swaggers in, just back from a stint in the penitentiary for bank robbery. He’s the young macho hustler who spouts “Black Power” and “”Black is beautiful.”
He tries to earn a quick buck, and miraculously, he wins at the numbers. He convinces Risa to “join in the world” again, and they share a sweet, tender moment. The rest is just talk. Three hours of it. The performances are terrific, every one of them, but the play doesn’t have the metaphysical exuberance of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” or the musicality of “The Piano Lesson.” Wilson captures the cadences of his characters, but try as director Lloyd Richards might, he just can’t maintain the momentum, with so little happening onstage.
Scenic designer Tony Fanning has certainly captured every wonderful little detail of the diner, which is highlighted by Geoff Korf’s lighting design.
In all ways, this Yale Repertory Theatre production is lush and highly competent. But the material is flawed. There may be two trains running, but there isn’t enough diversion to keep us waiting at the station for three hours.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS Radio.
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.