KPBS Airdate: 05/04/07
There are “Two Trains Running” at the Old Globe, and you should get on board. The production is historically significant for two reasons. First of all, it’s set in the late 1960s, which was a time of great upheaval in the country. With a war going on, and the Civil Rights movement stumbling, the country was in the throes of a racial divide. And the black community was besieged by urban renewal and the great gulf between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, whose images tower over this production. But equally significant is the role this drama plays in theater history. It’s part of the monumental 10-play cycle written by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson, a titan of the American theater, who chronicled the African American experience in the 20th century, decade by decade.
Wilson finished the cycle just before his tragic death from cancer in 2005. He was only 60, a huge loss to the American theater. In the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, the Old Globe and Southeast Community Theatre presented several of the plays. And this year, the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre, in collaboration with Cygnet Theatre, has been presenting a series of staged readings of Wilson’s works; in fact, “The Piano Lesson,” is coming up next Monday and Tuesday at Cygnet. But five of the plays still haven’t been seen here, and this is the second time the Globe is presenting “Two Trains Running.” They say this is Wilson’s most accessible play. But I think that honor belongs to the Pulitzer winner, “Fences,” which is primarily about family, and has a much more definitive narrative arc.
“Two Trains Running” is less a story than a slice of life, set, as almost all the cycle plays are, in the black neighborhood of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where Wilson spent his early years. There isn’t a whole lot of action in this nearly three hour play, but it’s beautifully written and frequently provocative. We’re in Memphis Lee’s café, which is slated for demolition, and he’s prepared to fight City Hall to get his rightful price. Meanwhile, all the regulars of the diner come in to cogitate – or agitate.
They’re vibrant, everyday folks who represent different positions on black-white relations and the past and future for African Americans. The jaded older generation is confronted by a Black Power/’Black is Beautiful’ young upstart. There’s a businessman, a philosophizer, a numbers runner, an ex-con, a funeral director and an anguished, mentally impaired fence-painter who’s emblematic of the demand for dignity and getting one’s due. And there’s one lone woman, so traumatized by how she’s been treated by men that she’s disfigured herself. The play has a lot of humor, and even the promise of love, but death, poverty and violence are always lurking in the shadows. Even so, every character harbors a little hope.
At the Globe, the cast is terrific. Almost every one of these skilled actors, and their gifted director, Seret Scott, have had prior experience with August Wilson works. They’re wonderful with the poetry and musicality of the language, though some of it may be rough, and even a little tricky to understand, for some folks. What’s mesmerizing about this play, actually many of Wilson’s plays, is that as a white person, you feel like a voyeur, privy to conversations and opinions you wouldn’t normally hear.
It all takes place on a marvelous set, created by Tony Fanning, who also happens to have designed the 1991 production at the Globe – and the Broadway premiere. His creation perfectly captures every detail of a ‘60s diner, from the counter to the wallphone, the jukebox to the cigarette machine. Through the window, across the street, we see the rundown neighborhood stores, all pictured in grainy black and white. But Memphis’ place is thrumming with local color.
Seeing this production is a great way to get a little history and pay tribute to an American original. Don’t miss the train.
“Two Trains Running“ continues at the Old Globe Theatre through May 27.
©2007 Patté Productions, Inc.