'Two Trains Running' at Round House Theatre: A Flashback to Unsettled Times
Eve M. Ferguson | 4/23/2014, 3 p.m.
The year was 1969, and throughout the United States, African-American communities were in a state of upheaval as the civil rights movement hit a low with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. That pivotal year is the scenario that renowned playwright, the late August Wilson, set his work "Two Trains Running" against, and the revival of the play at the Round House Theatre through May 4 is both a reminder of the issues for African-Americans then, and a warning about today's urban shifts.
Set in a dying diner in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Wilson's narrative of black life plays out through the dialogue of six ordinary men and one female character, employing humor and often, intense drama. Memphis, the owner of the diner (Jefferson Russell) is looking to sell the space in the dwindling neighborhood, where the same patrons come in day after day for camaraderie despite the lack of food on the menu. He is angry at his failure to thrive, and nostalgic for the life he left in Mississippi. A predatory businessman is trying to get him to sell for cheap, and Memphis isn't having it, insisting that he get his asking price.
"The fact that there is not much else in the neighborhood makes it seem like a pipe dream initially," Russell said. "But he is steadfast in his determination, and once he gets it, he holds fast to his determination. He feels like he has gotten his piece of economic justice that
is tied to social justice for him." Memphis is joined regularly by Wolf, the neighborhood numbers runner (KenYatta Rogers) who uses the diner as his business hub in the absence of any other gathering place in the almost abandoned neighborhood.
"Wolf is a creature of territory but not domicile. He is most comfortable moving between zones — establishment to establishment, but never truly settling down," Rogers said of his character. "He is one of a long line of displaced black men that you find through August Wilson's work — displaced from the home, bound to the road, yet seeking a place of rest and security simultaneously."
During the opening dialogue, Sterling (Ricardo Frederick Evans) a recently released prisoner, comes to the diner looking for work and becomes the representation of the growing "Black Power" movement which stemmed partially from the lack of opportunities for young men like him in the late 1960s.
The sole female character, Risa (Shannon Dorsey), the waitress at Memphis' diner has her own saga of dysfunction. In order to stop unwanted advances, she has repeatedly cut her legs to make
herself unattractive and can't seem to get herself together enough to deliver on her job.
Holloway (Michael Anthony Williams), another diner fixture, rounds out the characters that Wilson employs to tell the simple, but serious truths of life as it was then. It is Holloway who tells the story of Aunt Esther, a 396-year-old conjure woman who is never seen, but is referenced as the presence of the African ancestral spirit. She is also the change agent consulted by both Holloway and Memphis to create action in the play.