Outside, black America may be ablaze, but inside the small cafe of August Wilson's sharp and upbeat "Two Trains Running," the turbulence of the '60s remains on a back burner. The concerns of Wilson's characters, an assortment of Pittsburgh gamblers, undertakers and sidewalk philosophers, have less to do with racial politics than with the more basic issues of survival and the pursuit of cold, hard cash.
The African Continuum Theatre, in the capable hands of Artistic Director Jennifer L. Nelson, is offering up an astute, finely drawn revival of Wilson's character-driven 1990 play, a work with a decidedly lighter comic spirit than some of his other successful dramas, such as "Fences" or "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." True to the playwright's propensity for undisciplined windiness, "Two Trains Running" has a little too much to say: At three hours, it overstays its welcome, like a guest at a banquet who refuses to notice the waiters have cleared the tables and are itching to go home.
Nevertheless, Wilson presents such an appealingly contentious slice of city life that a few minutes of overtime is, in the end, a relatively minor inconvenience. And Nelson's production, staged in the Kennedy Center's Film Theater, amiably conveys the holding-on-by-the-fingernails desperation of the merchants and laborers and ex-convicts whose struggles take center stage.
"They got to meet my price!" says Memphis (the excellent Michael Anthony Williams), owner of the chronically understocked restaurant in which the play is set. His ramshackle building is being sought for condemnation by the city, which plans some sort of urban renewal in its place. Prices are an obsessive topic for the patrons of Memphis's diner, who are forever quoting them. There's the $100 that the undertaker (Randall Shepperd) charges the bereaved to put a lock on a loved one's casket; the $1,200 in winnings the ex-con (Kenyatta Rogers) seeks to collect from the numbers runner (Marc R. Payne); the $25,000 that Memphis wants for his restaurant, and on and on.
The civil rights movement, the rise of black pride and the riots that erupted from Watts to Washington, events that convulsed racial politics in the 1960s, make a mere cameo appearance in "Two Trains Running." A downtown rally in honor of the assassinated Malcolm X is mentioned, but the meaning of his life and death is an abstraction, mostly, for the denizens of Memphis's place. While the fires in the cities capture the headlines, the more significant challenges for these people are of a type that does not make the papers. And it is Wilson's thesis that not every small ghetto story has to have an unhappy ending.
Although not much happens in "Two Trains Running" -- the ex-con woos a cautious waitress (Deidra LaWan Starnes); a mentally ill homeless man (Addison Switzer) wanders in for meals -- Wilson's gallery of voluble winners and losers holds your attention. Thomas F. Donahue's restaurant set, framed by a primitive mural of urban life, provides a seedy headquarters for the playwright's world, and costume designer Reggie Ray dresses the characters with some flair for the period, as evidenced by the comically loud get-ups he finds for Payne.
A couple of issues: Some in the cast stumble too frequently over their lines, and the pacing of a romantic scene late in the proceedings lumbers on for a mini-eternity. Anachronism may also be a factor. Just asking: Back in 1969, would a pay phone in a dive like Memphis's have been a push-button model?
Nelson, however, guides these actors good-naturedly through the quirkily funny vignettes that propel the play. Williams, who distinguished himself in the recent Round House production of "Jesus Hopped the A Train," is splendid as the cantankerous Memphis, determined not to allow what he has gained to slip out of his grasp; Rogers is charismatic as Sterling, the parolee who agilely keeps us guessing whether he's on the up and up or merely on the make; David Toney delivers a vivacious turn as a fixture in the diner and spinner of urban myths, and Shepperd, wearing black gloves and a trace of arrogance, does justice to the mortician, West, who in the business of death makes a killing.
Equally positive things can be noted in the performances of Payne, Starnes and Switzer. Good Wilson is always a group effort, and this group serves him well.
Two Trains Running, by August Wilson. Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson. Lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Charles J. Marsh. Approximately 3 hours. Through Nov. 28 at Kennedy Center's Film Theater. Call 800-444-1234 or visit www.africancontinuumtheatre.com.