By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 3, 2008
"Two Trains Running" arrives in the nick of time in "August Wilson's 20th Century," the Kennedy Center presentation of Wilson's cycle of 10 works, one for each decade. After the calumnies of the '40s drama "Seven Guitars" and the woes of the '50s in "Fences," it's a relief to shift into the '60s with "Two Trains Running" because it plays this politically explosive decade in an unexpected way: for laughs.
"Two Trains" is Wilson's funniest play, and the cadre of actors that has been recruited for it in the Terrace Theater might be, by a slight margin, the best of the ensembles for any of the pieces. Six of its seven actors appear in some of the other productions in this festival -- the exception is the galvanizing Glynn Turman in the central role of Memphis -- and here, under Israel Hicks's excellent direction, they mesh with a singular synergy.
Given the simmering resentments and frustrations of the range of African American characters in the plays chronologically preceding "Two Trains," one might have anticipated that Wilson would bring the rage to an even fuller boil in this play. (Although the works have been staged at the Kennedy Center along a logical timeline, Wilson, it's worth noting, did not write them in any particular order.)
But where's the genius in yielding to predictability? With the occasional sidestep into pathos, "Two Trains" chugs along in its merry own style. The turbulence of the period is certainly acknowledged in the Pittsburgh diner in which the play is set; references crop up occasionally to the assassination of Malcolm X, as well as to the black-power movement that convulsed the nation's inner cities.
Yet the concerns of the denizens of Memphis's rundown cafe, which can't even manage to keep in stock the ingredients for the advertised specials of the day, do reflect in subtle and not-so-subtle fashion a rising chorus in black America -- for justice. Grievances alluded to in the earlier decades (sanitation man Troy Maxson's complaint in "Fences," for instance, about the absence of blacks in the cushier jobs in the cabs of city garbage trucks) are translated in "Two Trains" as individualistic searches for a piece of the American pie.
It is Memphis's obsession in "Two Trains" that, as the city prepares to tear down his diner to make way for an urban renewal project, he get a big payday for his property under eminent domain. That concern is even reflected in the play's most bizarre character, Hambone (Hassan El-Amin), a man who has been waiting for a shopkeeper to pay him in groceries for a menial job he performed nearly a decade earlier -- and who maniacally repeats the phrase over and over, "He gonna give me my ham!"
Everyone, it seems, is waiting for a ham, a hand or even a handout. Which might explain why the neighborhood numbers-runner, Wolf (Russell Hornsby), does such boffo business, using Memphis's pay phone to take his bets. (The blackboard behind the counter tells patrons not only the price of meatloaf, but also the day's winning number.)
"Two Trains" is the first entry in the cycle to provide a sense of commerce in the black community; "Jitney," the minor entry that succeeds it, revolves around a black-run taxi service. It's a setting that finds Wilson in a more satirical frame of mind, for he writes here from a captivatingly wry perspective. The other business mentioned often in "Two Trains" is a funeral home across the street from the diner, and in the ways the mortician, West (Eugene Lee), soaks his grieving clientele, the playwright locates some of his best material.
As Memphis tells it, West comes up with all manner of shady extra fees, including a ludicrous one for a waterproof casket: "For an extra hundred dollars he give you a 20-year guarantee that the casket ain't gonna leak and let the water seep in," Turman's Memphis says. "Now how dumb can anybody get? You gonna dig up the casket 20 years later to see if it's leaking and go back and tell West and get your hundred dollars back?"
Like many of his atmospherically evocative plays, "Two Trains" dips in and out of the lives of a randomly connected assortment of characters who come to seem like a kind of family. That notion is enhanced in this production by shrewd casting choices, including the magnetic Turman, whose Memphis comes across as hardheaded and slightly reckless. Lee, El-Amin, Hornsby and Stephen McKinley Henderson all carve sharp niches for themselves. Even more memorable are Jason Dirden, as an ex-con who's not as slick as he imagines himself to be, and Michole Briana White, whose portrayal of the emotionally damaged waitress, Risa, lets you feel something akin to the mystery of sadness.
If "Two Trains" creates a funny, multifaceted canvas, then the comic vision of "Jitney," directed here by Gordon Davidson, is more static and one-dimensional. Written early in his career, "Jitney" lurches formulaically from conflict to conflict, from the Oedipal confrontation of a father (Paul Butler) and son (El-Amin) to the home-buying quarrels of a young couple (Roslyn Ruff and Anthony Mackie). As far as Wilson's conveyances go, "Trains" proves the far better bet.
August Wilson's 20th Century: Two Trains Running, directed by Israel Hicks. Performance, Saturday at 2 p.m. Jitney, directed by Gordon Davidson. Saturday at 7:30 p.m. At John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.