Fort Worth — The busted jukebox onstage says it all: We will need to listen hard to hear the music of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running—but it’s there. Grittier and more “everyday” than Wilson classics like Joe Turner’s Come and Gone or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, this fine production from Jubilee Theatre sings with the stories of plain people trying to make their way in a hard world.
“The half ain’t never been told,” says one character about his many-layered life—and that feels true for each of the ordinary men (and one woman) who people the play. Luckily for them, and us, we’re in the hands of a master playwright who knew, as critic Ben Brantley once wrote, how to find “the divine in the down home.” Their joys and tragedies and striving—and their jokes, too—are all part of the mix, distilled through Wilson’s alchemical words into something essentially, triumphantly, 100-proof human.
Like most of Wilson’s plays, Two Trains Running, which premiered on Broadway in 1992, is set in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District, a center of African-American urban life. The time is 1969. The place, Memphis Lee’s restaurant. And the neighborhood—the same lively, struggling community we know from Fences or The Piano Lesson—is being bought up, block by block, for an ultimately disastrous urban renewal project.
But Memphis hasn’t sold his place to the city, and won’t sell, he says, until they meet “my price.” Played splendidly by Jubilee artistic director William Earl (Bill) Ray on the weekend we reviewed (he also directs the show). Laurence Pete is supposed to play it for the rest of the run, but as of press time, it was unclear whether he or Ray would finish the run. Memphis’ fierce determination is the engine of Two Trains Running. Compared to the colorful swirl of characters blowing in and out of his doors, Memphis seems cool, practical, in charge. He’s a businessman with little patience for Black Power rallies and street unrest. Memphis came north from Mississippi years ago—there’s a story there—bought this small restaurant, and “found myself a way to live for the rest of my life.”
Or so he thought.
If the story line sounds a bit dark, it doesn’t come across that way onstage, where banter and flirting and debate keep things lively. And as the neighborhood waits for the wrecking ball, life hustles on. Slick, brashly self-promoting numbers runner Wolf (Marcus Mauldin) hangs by the pay phone waiting for business. (The I-remember-that set design for the diner—down to the worn green linoleum and red-vinyl booths—is by Bryan Wofford.) Well-heeled funeral director West (Oris Phillips Jr. in elegant black by costume designer Barbara O’Donoghue) drops in for coffee—and another go at persuading Memphis to sell him the restaurant; West hopes to “bundle” properties and get a better deal from the city. A mentally challenged man they call “Hambone” (Jarrett Goer in a tricky role manages to be both funny and deeply touching) comes in for a bowl of soup and a friendly word from Memphis’ kind-hearted waitress Risa (a beautifully quiet and self-contained Shanidrea Evans). Memphis bullies Risa so much you’d think he was her father, and she ignores him—along with all the men who’d like to take her out for a spin.
One of those is Sterling (Sam Henderson piles on the charm), literally the new guy on the block. Fresh out of the penitentiary—he robbed a bank because he was “tired of having no money”—Sterling wants a job, a girl, a car, a life. He hatches one plan after another, and drops them as each new thought is born in his head. “That boy ain’t got good sense,” Memphis says. Well, yes, but at least he’s in there pitching. Work is hard to find—and harder still for a guy with a prison record. Sterling brings Risa flowers swiped from a fancy funeral across the street. To our astonishment, there’s a faint flicker of interest in her eyes. (Sound designer David Lanza’s smart music choices stay outside the action throughout—but for this one moment, there’s a bit of magic.)
Memphis’ longtime friend Holloway (Alonzo Waller in a memorable performance) holds forth—spotlit by designer Nikki DeShea Smith—at the edge of the stage. He is the restaurant’s resident philosopher, whose deadpan, ironic commentaries make us laugh, wince, and think more deeply about what we’re seeing. Holloway is our guide to this world, with his uncanny way of seeing how the smallest actions are part of the wide, flowing river that is the history of black people in this country.
Refuting Memphis’ claim that “folks don’t want to work,” Holloway jabs back at him that blacks are “the most hard-working people” he knows. After all, he says, “they worked 300 years for free.” Yet he doesn’t, like most of the other characters, think about life in terms of money. To “get you right with yourself,” he tells them, they’ll have to see Aunt Esther up the street, a “washer of souls” (she is mentioned in other Wilson plays) who claims to be more than 300 years old (like slavery itself). She’ll ask them, he says, to change their luck by tossing $20 in the river—perhaps to show they value their African heritage more than the money they earn. (No other August Wilson play is so concerned with numbers—especially the ones with dollar signs that drive every aspect of his characters’ lives.)
The mature Memphis and the adolescent Sterling are on very different paths, but both make choices that leave us wanting to shake them—or shout a warning. In notes for the first production in 1992, Wilson wrote: “There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both.” And even in the last minutes of the play, with both men in a jubilant frame of mind, we (and they) can’t know which train they’re choosing.
There’s an inconclusive quality about Two Trains Running that leaves us a bit uneasy—probably as Wilson intended. At the end of our great civil rights decade, the people of the Hill District feel bypassed by the changes they hear about. “The NAACP has all kinds of lawyers,” says Wolf, “but they don’t do nobody no good.” In the diner, the talk is about police shootings, Rust Belt cities with no jobs, and all the families they know who have a son, brother or father in prison. This history isn’t safe ground for us; it hits too close to home. We don’t know how things will turn out.
It could be a page ripped from today’s newspaper.
Because Bill Ray won’t be playing the role for the entire run, too little may have been said about his performance, which has tremendous presence and digs deep to portray emotions we just don’t see coming from a cool customer like Memphis. And Ray’s direction is impeccable—the players don’t feel like a group of individual actors onstage. They’re a community of living people, like us, who come with back stories and dreams of the future, and complicated lives we can understand—because we live them too.
As a side note, this was the play that brought William Earl Ray to Fort Worth for the first time. The late Jerry Russell, mounting a production of Two Trains Running for Stage West back in 1994, cast him as Memphis. (He has also played the role in two other productions.) Then and now, a fine idea.