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Two Trains Running
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
January 18, 2020

James A. Williams, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has a reputation for excellence, and it consistently lives up to that reputation. It’s latest production, Two Trains Running, is a prime example of this excellence, with a vividly realized world put on stage for the audience to experience. With stunning production values and a superb cast, this is a profoundly affecting production that deserves all the praise it can get.

This company is no stranger to August Wilson’s plays, having produced many of his works several times. This latest production emphasizes again the strength of Wilson’s work, and the vivid way he portrays life in an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh throughout the 20th Century. Two Trains Running, a part of this cycle, brings us to Lee’s Restaurant in 1969, in the midst of economic struggles, “urban renewal”, and the influences of the Civil Rights movement. The owner, Memphis (James A. Williams), is hoping to sell his restaurant, which is declining in business as is much of the rest of the neighborhood. He wants to set his own price, though, and the white powers-that-be in the city government are giving him a hard time. The regulars in the restaurant hang out there daily, with the retired Holloway (Ron Himes) occupying his usual table and commenting on the neighborhood goings-on, while Wolf (Carl Overly, Jr.) uses the restaurant’s phone in his numbers running racket, to Memphis’s irritation. Memphis’s only employee is Risa (Sharisa Whatley), who waits tables and cooks, being taken for granted by her boss while catching the eye of newcomer Sterling (Jason J. Little), who is looking for a job after having spent five years in prison. Sterling is also increasingly involved in political activities that also irritate Memphis, although he quickly becomes a part of the group of regulars at the restaurant, building a rapport with Hambone (Travis Banks), who doesn’t talk much except about a ham that was promised to him a long time ago by a local grocery owner for a painting job. That promise hasn’t been fulfilled, and Hambone won’t let anyone forget that. There’s also West (Samuel J. Davis), who in contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, has made an ample income as the director of the local funeral home, which is currently busy with mourners filing in to pay their respects to a recently deceased religious leader and neighborhood icon, Prophet Samuel. At first the story plays out as something of a “slice of life” vignette, as we observe the characters interacting, but the story arcs develop gradually and surely, as bonds develop between characters, injustices are revealed and reiterated, hopes and dreams are expressed and sometimes realized, and the passage of time is made clear. It’s a fairly long play, but it moves so well and the characters and situations are so well defined, that even when the play ends, I find myself wishing I could find out more about what happens.

Such a brilliant script and well-drawn characters demand a first-rate cast, and this production certainly delivers in that respect. From Williams’s curmudgeonly Memphis, to Himes’s ever-present, world-wise Holloway, to Davis’s determined, confident West, to the entire cohesive ensemble, this production goes from strength to strength, without a weak link. Also strong are Little in a convincing performance as the activist Sterling and Whatley as the wary Risa, and the bond these two eventually form is marked by credible chemistry. There’s also a believable bond between Little and the also excellent Banks as the single-minded Hambone. Also excellent is Overly as the swaggering, enterprising Wolf. All of the players work together to form a convincing group chemistry that drives this story and gives it its palpable emotional weight.

The set here is especially worth noting, as designers Margery and Peter Spack have brought such a finely detailed representation of a restaurant that looks and feels so real, it’s easy to imagine sitting at one of the tables and ordering lunch. There are also excellent well-suited costumes by Daryl Harris that reflect the characters’ personalities especially well. Jim Burkwinkel’s atmospheric lighting and Kareem Deanes’s proficient sound design also work well in establishing and maintaining the world of these characters and their stories.

Two Trains Running might just be the best production I’ve ever seen at the Black Rep, and considering the consistency of excellence from this company, that’s saying something. It’s a powerful, profoundly affecting story, with superb performances and a vividly realized setting. It’s certainly a must-see.

Sharisa Whatley, Jason J. Little, Travis Banks, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Two Trains Running at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 26, 2020

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Fences
by August Wilson
Directed by Lorna Littleway
The Black Rep
January 6, 2017

Ron Himes, Richard Agnew
Photo by Joe Clapper
The Black Rep

The latest production at the Black Rep is a well-known modern classic. A Pulitzer Prize winner recently made into an award-winning film, Fences is a poignant, incisive play by August Wilson. With its casting requirements and powerful script, this is a challenging play, and the Black Rep has presented it with poignance, power, and precision.

The story follows a family in Pittsburgh in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, focusing on a character whose life has been profoundly affected by the systemic and societal racism of the times. Troy Maxson (Ron Himes) was once a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues, but after spending a long time in prison for petty offences, missed out on his chance to play in the Major Leagues because of his age. Troy, who now works for a sanitation company, lives with his wife, Rose (Linda Kennedy) and their teenage son, Cory (Brian McKinley), who has shown promise as a football player, although the embittered Troy refuses to let him talk to a college recruiter. The trials and events of Troy’s and Rose’s lives also involve Troy’s friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Robert Alan Mitchell), who questions some of Troy’s personal choices; Troy’s son from a previous relationship, Lyons (Steven Maurice), a musician who lives in the hope of gaining his father’s approval; and Troy’s brother Gabriel (Richard Agnew), who hasn’t been the same since he was injured in the war and who used to live with Troy, and who now wanders the streets during the day seeming to believe himself to be the Angel Gabriel, ready to blow his trumpet to signal the opening of the gates of Heaven.  Through the course of the play, Troy is forced to confront his own past and his disappointment with the way his life has turned out, as well as his goals for the present and the future, and his own thinly veiled resentment for his own son, whose hopes for advancement are viewed as something of a threat.  The play deals with a variety of issues, including personal and family responsibility; the effects of societal racism on individuals, families, and communities; parent-child relationships, and more. It’s a powerful character study as well as a thought-provoking portrait of a time and place in history, with themes that resonate still today.

This is a long, talky play, marked by Wilson’s insightful dialogue and richly-drawn characters, including a deeply flawed central character. Troy is a difficult role, as bitter, manipulative and self-focused as he can be, but there’s also an inherent sympathy in his situation, and it takes a strong actor to convincingly play all the many layers of this character. Himes is simply superb in the role, bringing his strong stage presence to the role and conveying with authenticity all the complexities of this character. He’s well-paired with the truly excellent Kennedy as the determined, longsuffering Rose, whose love for and exasperation with Troy are in full evidence, as is her devotion to her family.  There are also strong performances from Mitchell as Troy’s loyal but increasingly disillusioned (with Troy) friend, Bono; and by Agnew in a standout performance as the unstable, single-minded Gabriel. Maurice as Lyons and McKinley as Cory are also convincing, for the most part, although their stage presence isn’t quite at the same level as the rest of the powerhouse cast. For the most part, this is a strong, cohesive ensemble, supporting the first-rate performances of Himes and Kennedy who are real anchors of this production, thoughtfully and dynamically staged by director Lorna Littleway.

Technically, this show is also impressive, as is usual for the Black Rep. The stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre has been transformed into the Maxson’s backyard by means of  Jim Burwinkel’s comprehensive, detailed set. There’s also excellent character-specific costume design by Marissa Perry. Joseph W. Clapper’s striking lighting, Kareem Deanes’s clear, effective sound design, and Kate Slovinkski’s props also contribute to the overall dramatic impact of this play.

The Black Rep is known for its remarkable work, including previous productions of August Wilson’s works. This latest production of Fences is yet another example of this company’s commitment to excellence and its position as a showcase for superb acting. It’s a riveting, personal, highly affecting drama, especially highlighting the performances of some of St. Louis’s more celebrated performers. It’s well worth seeing.

Robert Alan Mitchell, Ron Himes, Linda Kennedy
Photo: Joe Clapper, Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Fences at the Edison Theatre until January 21, 2017

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Seven Guitars
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
March 31, 2017

Reginald Pierre, Kingsley Leggs, Phillip Dixon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a compelling drama from one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, August Wilson. An installment in his cycle of plays chronicling the experience of African Americans in each decade of the 20th Century, Seven Guitars is a thoughtful, extremely well characterized play that presents the plight of various characters and their hopes and dreams in 1948 Pittsburgh. The Black Rep’s production is highlighted by thoughtful staging and a top-notch cast.

This is one of those plays that tells us its end at the very beginning. From the start, we know that one of the play’s central characters, blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kingsley Leggs) has died, and various of his friends are gathered in a backyard after his funeral. What it doesn’t tell us right away, is how Floyd died and what events led up to the gathering in the first scene, and that’s the focus of the story.  Most of the play takes place before the initial scene, and we see how Floyd, recently released from prison, tries to re-establish his relationship with girlfriend Vera (Linda Kennedy), and reconnect with fellow musicians Canewell (Phillip Dixon) and Red Carter (Reginald Pierre) and journey to Chicago for a recording session at the record company for which he recorded a previous song that has become a surprise hit. He’s staying with Vera, but Vera’s not so sure she wants Floyd back, since he had previously left her for another woman. Also in the picture are Vera’s neighbors,  Louise (Cathy Simpson) and King Hedley (Ron Himes). Hedley, who makes a living selling homemade chicken sandwiches and eggs from the chickens he raises and is treated by the others as something of an eccentric, is full of dreams, regrets, and strong opinions about how black men are treated and oppressed by the white establishment.  Louise is waiting for the arrival of her niece Ruby (Lakesha Glover) from out of town, and when Ruby finally arrives she carries with her some secrets of her own.

This is a long, complex play with extremely well-drawn characters and unfolding situations that build gradually and, eventually, explosively. The direction is deliberate and the cast is ideally chosen, led by Leggs in a compelling performance as the ambitious Floyd. He’s also got a great voice and performs well on the guitar during the show’s musical moments. Himes is also extremely strong as the determined, complex Hedley, as is Kennedy as the conflicted Vera. The whole cast is strong, and the musical performances featuring Leggs, Pierre, and Dixon are memorable as well. It’s a cohesive cast, bringing a lot of energy and weight to Wilson’s excellent script.

The technical aspects of the production are well-presented in Tim Case’s detailed set and Michael Alan Stein’s excellent period-specific costumes. Jim Burwinkel’s lighting adds a lot to the mood of the production, as does Maril Whitehead’s sound, particularly in the musical moments of the show.

Seven Guitars is a long play, but Wilson’s superb dialogue and story pacing, along with the excellent performances of the cast, makes every minute count. This is a gripping story that provides a great deal to think about in terms of how things used to be, as well as how they still are a lot of the time. It’s a memorable production from  the Black Rep.

Lakesha Glover, Kingsley Leggs
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Seven Guitars at Harris-Stowe University’s Emerson Performance Center until April 23, 2017.

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