Friday, February 02, 2018

Play: Trains of Thought

Two Trains Running by August Wilson, Directed by Juliette Carrillo, Seattle Rep through 11 Feb.

I think I have seen more plays by August Wilson than by any other playwright with the exception of Shakespeare. With Two Trains Running, I have now seen nine of his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle. And my relationship with his work has always been complicated. There are works that I've found engaging, and others that lead me to question what he's really up to.

A good reason for my engagement with Wilson is simple happenstance - I was born in Pittsburgh (as was Mr. Wilson), I spent a lot of time in the Midwest (which was a stopover region for him) and ended up in Seattle (where he passed on a dozen years back). The bulk of his plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a strong African-American community done in by change and urban renewal (much of the land was grabbed for the Civic Arena (now also gone)), and when I lived in Pgh there were a lot of decaying buildings surrounding empty lots of rubble, where the Urban rolled through but the Renewal had not arrived. I recognized the streets and the people in his work, and the vibe of the eras we covered.

And that all said, I found Two Trains Running to be one of Wilson's better works, with roles that get under the skin of the African American experience, not preaching but rather exposing a variety of black viewpoints to a greater world. While set in a Hill District soon to be overtaken by said Urban Renewal in 1969, and mentioning Malcolm X, it a non-political story about people and their wants and sense of worth.

The play is broad, with a bunch of things going on in once at the fading restaurant on Wylie Avenue.  Owner Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee) is looking to sell to the city, but only if he gets what he thinks is a fair price. Sterling (Carlton Byrd) is just out of prison and trying to find a job. The mentally challenged Hambone (Frank Riley III) just wants his payment (a ham) for a job done nine years ago for a firm across the street. Memphis Lee's friendly rival, West (a wondrously reptilian William Hall Jr.) is a funeral director handling a major celebrity death. Add to this number-runner Wolf (Reginald Andre Jackson) and corner-table wiseman Holloway (David Emerson Toney) and you have a rich collection of inhabitants, all with their own clear needs.

And yet there is a void at the center, in the presence of the recalcitrant Risa (Nicole Lewis), who is the waitress. Ordered about by a clueless Memphis Lee, patronized by  Wolf, romanced by an idealizing Sterling, she holds her secrets with the scars along her legs (no, you don't notice them until they are pointed out). All the characters get monologues and stories (indeed, there is an August Wilson monologue contest), but she does not. She never takes her place fully, though the others speak of equality and relationships.

Wilson tosses a half-dozen balls in the air, and wraps them in a wreath of nature voices. Lines are repeated, expanded, harked back to dozens of times, so by the end of the first act you get a feeling of who these people are. Wilson does a fantastic job slowly drawing everyone out, and the actors, all excellent in their roles, slowly delineate the dances as they advance.

There are a couple things that move through Wilson's cycle. One is the threat of violence - there are numerous guns and crimes that are presented, and at one point an army tin of gasoline as people talk about arson. It is a component of the Pittsburgh Cycle, sometimes seized upon, sometime left in the background, but always present.

Also, there is a mystic element to the plays, of belief and sometimes superstition. In Two Trains, this is in part shown by the funeral of Prophet, whose mobs of believers tax West's soul, and in the unseen presence of Aunt Ester, incredibly old at this point, who offers advice to those who seek her out and follow her orders. The reaction of the characters to both Ester and the Prophet- belief, disbelief, unbelief, and changing belief, creates their own line through the end.

In the end, it is a question of man's worth - measured by money, a woman's love, or even a ham, that the play ultimately centers on. And it is a bout opportunities - making them and taking them. This solid core that Wilson builds upon to create an involved, intriguing, engaging play. One of his best, and I can safely say that as someone who has seen almost them all.

More later,