This is a reprint of my remarks about “Two Trains Running” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented in their Quadracci Powerhouse main stage theater during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline sometime in April, 2019!
The first August Wilson play that I attended was the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s presentation of Jitney during the 2001/2002 season. It was an OMG theater experience for me and I have looked forward to every other Wilson play that the Rep has presented since then. I had never been enamored of 20th Century playwrights…just some things here and there…but nothing like Mr. Wilson.
For me, Mr. Wilson’s strength is in his characters. They feel authentic. They stay true to themselves. The dialogue rings true…consistently. And what characters they are! People representing the full breadth and strata of the local neighborhood…philosophers…poseurs…the backbones of society…and the ne’er do wells…a delightful chorus!
So all season I was just waiting for Two Trains Running. And I was not disappointed. All of the action takes place in Memphis Lee’s diner in an inner-city Pittsburgh neighborhood currently under the pressure of urban renewal – gentrification that is slowing destroying the nature of their environment. The focus is Risa, the only woman in an apparently man’s world. She is all things to the diner: the chef, the wait and bus staff, dishwasher and clean-up crew. She is also the level head that keeps everyone on an even keel. Memphis owns the joint and thinks he ‘runs’ it, but he is stressed out by the city’s efforts to buy the diner and the earlier harms he’s suffered in Jim Crow Alabama. And then there’s the retiree, Holloway, who is the camp philosopher. Wolf, the numbers runner and self-proclaimed lady’s man who knows the whole neighborhood. Sterling who’s just returned after a short term in prison and who wants to do well, but while facing prejudices is surviving in the gray area between right and wrong. And Hambone who has been driven to insanity by the injustice of the white business man across the street from the diner. And West, the black undertaker who knows everyone. He owns a major portion of the neighborhood and is held up as the economic success story for his neighbors. But he’s got his own hustle.
So Two Trains Running is a week in the life for this crew and this diner and this neighborhood. It clearly presents issues around race and economic inequity and faith. Although set in 1969, there hasn’t been that much that has changed in the ensuing 50 years. We’ll see some of Milwaukee in the dialogue and the settings. Not all of it pleasant. But we do feel that sense of community that Wilson brings to all of his plays. And a story that needs to be told.
I saw the play twice. The first time I felt the running time of three hours seemed to be too long…that must have been on me. The second time, even though I already knew the story, it flew by and I was sad when it had ended. That makes for a good play and a good presentation.
My big shout out for this play is to Michael Anthony Williams…he makes an incredible Holloway and for me really set this play up! I know Risa is often considered the focal point since she is the rock that runs the diner…but Holloway shows us the community around him.
And the set designers…my goodness…if this set isn’t exactly the way I remember tired late 1960’s diners to look. Wow! Two Trains Running only runs through May 12th at the Quadracci Power House Theater…so you best hurry!