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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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