Like every play in the late Wilson’s landmark, 10-script cycle of black Pittsburgh life in the 20th century, “Two Trains Running’ is, in essence, a blues song saturated with wry humor, big dreams and painful memories.
August Wilson’s diffuse, powerful “Two Trains Running,” now onstage at Seattle Repertory Theatre, takes its title from a haunting blues song by Muddy Waters.
“There are two trains running,” goes the lyric. “They’re never going my way.”
The characters you meet in an endangered Pittsburgh diner, the sole setting of this loquacious, meandering yet deeply resonant play, know the feeling.
‘Two Trains Running’
By August Wilson. Through Feb. 11 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $17-$80 (206-443-2222 or seattlerep.org)
Nothing seems to be going right at first for Sterling (appealing Carlton Byrd), an exuberant ex-con desperately seeking a job — and making do with a little pilfering. West (William Hall Jr.), a prosperous local undertaker, can barely manage the tumultuous funeral of an idolized local preacher — while his friend Holloway (David Emerson Toney) bemoans the passing of slain civil-rights leader Malcolm X.
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Diner owner Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee), feeling cheated on many levels, worries the city won’t meet his price to buy his restaurant for an urban-redevelopment scheme. And mentally damaged street person Hambone (excellent Frank Riley III) keeps demanding a ham as payment from a white man he worked for — nine years before.
Like every play in the late Wilson’s landmark, 10-script cycle of black Pittsburgh life in the 20th century, “Two Trains Running” is, in essence, a blues song saturated with wry humor, big dreams and painful memories. This tune is loosely constructed, but sung out with bitterness and warmth by a fine-tuned cast under Juliette Carrillo’s direction.
In Wilson’s decade-by-decade series, “Two Trains Running” is set in 1969. This black Pittsburgh milieu isn’t preoccupied with anti-war demonstrations and counterculture revolution. Vietnam isn’t mentioned (and President Richard Nixon only briefly).
What really occupies folks are elemental concerns: Money. Survival. Death. Love, lost and found. The destruction of their Hill District community (via gentrifying “urban renewal”). And the scars and residual pain from racist brutality and slavery. But if you add all that up, Wilson implies, it’s clear why the emergent Black Power movement, alluded to and embraced by Sterling, felt so necessary.
Each character is riding their own track. And even from a writer who generally savored language and character over plot mechanics, the three-hour production takes some time getting out of the station.
Regulars pass through the diner, reporting on the spectacle of pray-and-get-rich Prophet Samuel’s funeral. And they share whatever is eating at or propelling them in ruminative reveries and pungent repartee. (The N-word is used liberally.)
Affable, unpredictable Sterling woos the aloof waitress Risa (Nicole Lewis). This self-possessed young woman is so unwilling to be treated as a mere sex object, she has scarred her own legs with a razor.
The hustling numbers runner Wolf (Reginald Jackson) peddles a dream of instant wealth to anyone with a dollar to risk. And Holloway, an elder observer, sings the praises of neighborhood sage Aunt Ester, a three-century-old spiritual healer. (Though unseen here, she’s the central character in Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.”)
As these individuals grow familiar, certain dichotomies emerge. Prophet Samuel preached wealth to his struggling followers, while Aunt Ester helps people find spiritual strength in themselves and their ancestry. (Her fee? Just throw $20 in the river — as Jesus urged his flock to cast bread upon the water.)
Though he’s rich, West counsels Sterling to downscale his vision of success: Be content with “a little cup of water” instead of craving “a 10-gallon bucket.” A poignant loss underscores the vast difference between rich and poor, by how they are mourned.
Act 2 splices in a bit more action and tension. And the Sterling-Risa romance kindles with a slow dance to a jukebox tune. (As scripted, it’s Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look.”)
Despite Lewis’ lived-in portrayal, the play doesn’t do enough with Risa. Wilson wrote it in the early 1990s. (Seattle Rep hosted a run prior to the play’s 1992 Broadway debut.) But not until his later works, like “Gem of the Ocean” and “Seven Guitars,” did women really have the power and room to assert their own stories and needs as equals. (“Fences” is, arguably, an early exception.)
“Two Trains Running” ends raggedly — triumphant yet (literally) alarming. But if you listen up hard on this rolling ride, there’s much to take in and ponder.