One of the key characters in August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” is played not by a person but by a machine. In the upcoming revival at Arena Stage, that part will be played by the same machine that originated the role for the world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1990 and in nine subsequent productions, including the run on Broadway, in 1992.
That machine is a 1955 Rock-Ola jukebox, Model 1448, its silver body decorated with three large V’s, its glass case displaying its 45 rpm records arranged on a circular carousel as if they were a car tire cut into thin slices of black vinyl. After its initial stage career, Wilson claimed the jukebox for himself and filled it up with his favorite 45s. After Wilson died, in 2005, the jukebox went into storage. Now it’s onstage again.
When the lights come up on a small Pittsburgh restaurant in 1969, the jukebox has been broken for some time. For Memphis, the owner of the diner, the Rock-Ola is a reminder of days when the place was packed.
Sterling, who’s one week out of the state penitentiary, sees the jukebox and the restaurant’s taciturn waitress, Risa, as the keys to his immediate redemption.
Almost every August Wilson play has a moment when music enters the action and lifts the dialogue to a higher level. In “The Piano Lesson,” it’s when Berniece plays the upright piano with her family’s history carved into its wood. In “Seven Guitars,” it’s when Schoolboy Barton’s friends erupt in song at the musician’s funeral. In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” it’s when the titular singer lays down the law to her male musicians that they’re going to play the song her way: slow and bluesy. In “Two Trains Running,” it’s when the broken jukebox comes back to life.
The actual jukebox that the production borrowed from Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, was dusty and dingy when it arrived at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where this production originated. It came with a note from her that said, “The sudden working of the jukebox should be a magical moment. Perhaps in the scene where Risa puts the quarter in, the light should go out and it should stop working. When she does make it work with Aretha Franklin, there should be colorful lights coming from inside it, a magical moment should happen which goes with the music.”
Lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani got the machine’s lights working and laid LED strips inside to provide more psychedelic colors when the crucial moment arrives. Franklin starts singing Allen Toussaint’s “Take a Look,” and Sterling asks the waitress to dance.
“The characters complain about the broken jukebox,” Mojgani says, “as if when it got fixed, things would change for the better. Then one day, it’s fixed. That’s the way life is: It’s just one bad thing after another and finally something goes right. This dingy thing in the corner suddenly lights up.”
The fact that the music comes through a jukebox that once belonged to Wilson amplifies that effect for much the same reason that museums always prefer a genuine artifact to a perfect replica. It’s as if the cast and crew — and maybe the audience — can feel the history that the Rock-Ola carries with it.
“The thing I notice about most musicals,” Wilson told me in 1999, “is the contrivance. The song comes about not because the characters need to sing but because the play needs a song. I try to use music so it comes out of the lives of the characters, so it’s uncontrived. One of my favorite examples is in ‘The Piano Lesson’ when Wining Boy sits down at the piano and pretty soon Boy Willie and the rest are dancing around. If you walked by their house and looked through the window, you’d say, ‘Boy, those people are having fun,’ but there’s a lot more to it than that. The music is putting the characters back together; it heals them. It has a function.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300 or arenastage.org.
Dates: Through April 29.