Now playing at the Marin Theater Company through Dec.18, Two Trains Running is the sixth play in August Wilson’s 10-part Pittsburgh Cycle. Collectively, they tell the story of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, PA, from a prosperous African-American community in 1904 (Gem of the Ocean) through its gentrification in 1997 (Radio Golf).
Prophet Samuel has been laid out at West’s Funeral Home, and large crowds have turned up. Seeking refuge in the restaurant of Memphis (Lamont Thompson), who is being forced to sell under eminent domain laws, are waitress Risa (Sam Jackson), numbers man Wolf (Kenny Scott), Holloway (Michael J. Asberry), West (Khary L. Moye), idealist Sterling (Eddie Ewell) and local eccentric Hambone (Michael Wayne Rice). Taking the audience through a week in 1968 as the Civil Rights movement happens outside the walls of the restaurant, the play centers on the humanity of the people within the walls.
Wilson’s writing is so nuanced that when his plays are done right, time loses its meaning. This play is done right. Director Dawn Monique Williams has given the audience a visual and auditory feast of a production—from the realism of the set design by Stephen C. Jones and detailed sound design by Gregory Robinson, to the actors that truthfully portray complex people.
Like any show, it wasn’t perfect. Pacing was slow at the top, and a few transitions were too lengthy for a play that runs three hours. While some performances were stronger than others, the attention to detail in all the acting elevates this show into excellence.
Specifically, Rice’s Hambone is character acting personified. Jackson’s intensely private but very present Risa is a grounded capture of a woman putting up with a man’s world. Asberry’s gravitas and humor as Holloway were perfectly balanced to give the wise character humanity.
Thankfully, Williams does not have the cast over-enunciate the language to make it “easier” for a non-Black audience. Like with Shakespeare, it might take a bit for one’s ear to adjust to its richness. As poet Danez Smith said, “this ain’t about language / but who language holds.”
Wilson’s plays, like Smith’s poetry and like a lot of art produced by people of color, isn’t so much about the words on the page. It’s about the people it holds, the stories they tell, and the ordinary Black folks who are so often not seen by white America and should be.
‘Two Trains Running’ runs Tues-Sun through Dec. 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tues-Sat, 7:30pm; Sat & Sun, 2pm. $25.50-$65.50. Masking required. 415.388.5208. marintheatre.org.
Interestingly, in the late 50’s, I was a suburban student in Pittsburgh who wasn’t doing well in traditional high schools, so I ended up attending Connelley Vocational High School in the Hill District. It had an all-male student body and no competitive sports. Seemed to operate more like a prison. It required me to take two street cars to get to school. The daily ride up the hill was always fun because we used to rock the street car side to side as it crawled up the hill. I only attended one semester as my family moved to Florida, where I attended a coed suburban vocational high school. It was the perfect high school for me!
I remain very concerned when it comes to COVID so I’m unsure whether I’ll attend. Although I’d love to!