BWW Review: TWO TRAINS RUNNING Smoothly at Open Stage
The height of the civil rights era in America was marked by several conflicting strands - non-violence versus uprising, people power versus government power, and pride in Black manhood versus the emancipation of Black women were only three of those issues. August Wilson's TWO TRAINS RUNNING tackled all three in retrospect, to the tune of a 1992 Tony and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.
TWO TRAINS RUNNING is the story of Memphis, a Mississippi farmer turned Pittsburgh Hill District cafe owner, and his run-in with Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority, one of the singularly worst redevelopment programs of the period. His once-thriving cafe is to be seized by the URA, and he rightly fears receiving inadequate compensation for his property. It is also the story of the patrons and staff, particularly of Sterling, recently released from prison and eager to make his mark on the world by whatever means possible.
It's currently at Open Stage of Harrisburg, which has a commitment to producing Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. Directed by Artistic Director Donald Alsedek, it makes a powerful statement of the shape of the world, both in Pittsburgh and beyond, in 1969. Most of the cast are veterans of Open Stage, particularly Aaron Bomar as Memphis. Usually in second-lead or character parts in Wilson plays at Open Stage, Bomar proves his leading man strengths here. Memphis is determined to get what he deserves, from the sale of his property now, to getting back the land he was forced from in Mississippi. Bomar plays a Memphis who looks easy-going on the surface but has steel underneath. He's also able to mine the humor in this, one of Wilson's funnier plays, easily. His deadpan delivery, accompanied by his shape-shifting facial expression and extraordinary body language, fit him well to playing a man being puled in multiple directions.
Contrasting with Memphis is Sterling, played by Louis Riley III, fresh out of jail and eager to get a job, get on his feet, and be a man. Unlike Memphis, who wants what's his but won't make waves, Sterling wants what he wants, wants it now, and is prepared for possible violence to get it. He and Memphis wage quiet war over an upcoming Black Power protest at which violence may be likely. Riley feels spring-loaded, ready to strike, even when not planning to attend a rally or when buying a gun; his body feels as if it desperately needs to uncoil rapidly.
Then there's West (Eric Sabin Sims), the mortician, the symbol of Black prosperity and of the period's Black preoccupation with over-the-top funerals as signs of the respect never received in life; much of the discussion in the play revolves around the funeral of a local Black "prophet" and the behavior of his followers. contrasting Black religious movements with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. There's Wolf, the local numbers runner, who puts Memphis in the dilemma of running a clean business while playing the numbers himself, as do most of his customers. He's played by Daniel Fordham, alternately hard, enforcing the numbers rules, and soft, as a friend of the other customers at the cafe. Holloway (Ronnie Banks) is a regular for coffee, a middle of the road middle aged man, a bit of a gossip, who goes along to get along.
And there's Caliph White as Hambone. Possibly mentally challenged, he's only known to repeat one phrase, except for some Black Power slogans Sterling tries to teach him: "He gonna give me my ham." Hambone insists he'd been promised a ham by the local butcher for painting the fence, but was only given a chicken - over nine years earlier. But his insistence on being paid properly for his work is a parallel to Memphis' demanding proper compensation for his property when the city takes it. The part is harder, and more necessary to the play, than it first appears, and White does it justice.
Then there's Risa, the one female character in the play, a waitress at Memphis' cafe. She's perpetually bombarded with unreasonable directions from Memphis, who says she's lazy - the Black man treating the Black woman as whites have treated him. To others, like Sterling, she's an object of romantic interest, and he hits on her heavily, as if food and femininity are her only attributes (and those two attributes are inextricably linked in women). Black women were overlooked frequently in the Black Power movement, which was much about restoring Black manhood, and Black women at the time were often conflicted between the Civil Rights movement and the burgeoning Women's Rights movement, which addressed their needs as women but was run primarily by white women. Rita is a self-mutilator, partly trying to make herself less attractive to men so that she will be seen as a person and not just for her body, but partly, perhaps, also in response to the painful tug-of-war that Black women faced at the time. Jennette Harrison brings Risa to life on stage, often speaking with her body what the character is afraid to say out loud.
There's no denying that the play is a major American drama. And there's no denying that this cast has done a remarkable job with it, as has Eric Berninghausen with the set design, which echoes every coffee shop and diner of the period, a place where many of us have spent time and immediately feel comfortable. It's a shame to realize that not just Memphis' cafe, but all the ones like it where many of us spent time back then, are gone, whether through redevelopment or otherwise, to be replaced with soulless chain restaurants, fast food chains, and cappuccino parlors. While Memphis now, with money in his pocket, may be able to go back to Jackson and regain his farm, we are all the poorer for the loss of his, and the other, little corner cafes of the world, where we were known and respected, rather than being one more face in the line. In this, Wilson's message is universal. When we lose our place, when we lose our anchor and our dignity, the world loses its soul. And we all die a little more every day.
At Open Stage through February 21. Call717-232-6736 or visit openstagehbg.com.