BWW Interview: 29 and Counting at Arena for TWO TRAINS RUNNING's David Emerson Toney
"Arena had a resident acting company when I was younger. And so it was members like Robert Prosky, Halo Wines and Richard Bauer, who taught me, straight out of grad school, what acting needs to be about and the love and respect one must have for it as an actor," says Toney in a phone interview before rehearsals start for Two Trains Running, his 29th Arena Stage production.
Two Trains Running is the seventh play in Wilson's ten-play Century Cycle. Set in Pittsburgh, each play of the Cycle is set during a different decade of the twentieth century and chronicles the African American experience.
"August Wilson is like Shakespeare in the quality of the language and in that there is always something else for the actor to discover. Sometimes with plays and movies, people come to see photographs, see something that is familiar in which they know what to expect. But August Wilson plays are living breathing entities that are alive and grow with each production," says Toney.
This production of Two Trains Running will not only mark Toney's return to Arena, it will also mark his third time performing this play, and second time portraying the character of Holloway. For Toney, though, it is not just himself that has grown since he last performed in Two Trains Running, but also the societal need to have a meaningful conversation about race in America.
"In the Seattle Rep portion of this run, we had this invited talkback following a performance of the play [Two Trains Running], and an African American woman who was 72, spoke from her wheel chair and said she was grateful - that for first time in 72 years, she saw someone else onstage to whom she could relate to from her own past. That is the point, because if we are not showing the African American experience in a realistic light then we are not advancing the conversation. August has made that effort, with humor and pathos, to show the world the struggle of the African American in America over ten decades of history. It is through August's theatrical and historical clarity that we as a race and the world at large can find compassion for that struggle," says Toney.
The play is set in 1969. Amidst the upheaval of the sixties, the locals at Memphis Lee's diner in Pittsburgh's Hill District are dealing with their own turmoil as the establishment is set to be demolished for a city-wide renovation project. If the diner regulars seem like a family, the credit can be attributed to the cast and their passion for this play.
"In this production, I can feel how much everyone cares for the other characters in the play. We are not just talking, we are listening," says Toney.
For theatergoers, Two Trains Running is the second time this season they will be taken back to the turbulence of 1968/69 following The Great Society. It begs asking 'why are playwrights and audiences keen on reexamining this tumultuous era?'
"It's because things haven't changed," says Toney. "Yes, we had a black president, but that doesn't belie the fact that in some cities an unarmed young black man is still getting shot just because of the way he looks. Theatres such as Arena and Seattle Rep are doing these plays about the sixties and the subject matter of race because we still need to have that conversation about monetary and human equality in the United States."
Both were themes tackled by Wilson throughout the Century Cycle, whether that was with Harmond Wilks in Radio Golf or with Aunt Esther in Gem of the Ocean. However, Wilson's Century Cycle also raised the public's consciousness of the African American experience.
"His [August Wilson] work is not unlike when I went to see Black Panther. It was amazing because you had these little kids showing up in costumes, head shaven, just to see a character that looked like them and wasn't the villain. That's what August did with his work. What is in this play [Two Trains Running] is something for everybody, for every generation, for every race if you are willing to listen."
Photo: David Emerson Toney (Holloway) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling) in August Wilson's Two Trains Running, running March 30-April 29, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Nate Watters for Seattle Repertory Theatre