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TWO TRAINS RUNNING at the Paul Robeson Theatre is a stunning showcase of Wilson monologues

THE BASICS: TWO TRAINS RUNNING, by August Wilson, directed by Edward G. Smith, runs through December 8, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 4, part of the 52nd season of the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue (884-2013). www.aaccbuffalo.org Runtime: 3 -1/2 hours with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  It’s 1969 in Memphis Lee’s diner in a now run-down Pittsburgh neighborhood that is on the brink of what was called economic development or urban renewal. Memphis knows that change is coming but wants a fair price for his once-thriving business just as local “character” Hambone wants a fair price for a fence he once painted. Other folks with the entrepreneurial spirit are West, who owns a very successful funeral home; Wolf, a numbers runner and purveyor of whatever you need; and Sterling, just out of the penitentiary, who sees that he’s going to have to become entrepreneurial himself and make his own opportunities. Two observers, somewhat removed from the day to day, are Holloway, whose advice to any and all is to seek advice from Aunt Esther, a magical and mysterious 322 year-old neighborhood sage, and Risa, the waitress, who does not want to be involved, to the point of once slashing her legs to keep men away.

TWO TRAINS RUNNING, the seventh of the “century plays” set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson, was first staged in 1991 and opened on Broadway in 1993.   This is the 1960s chapter of the decade by decade story of a neighborhood impacted by huge social, cultural, economic, and legal forces. But this play is not a history lesson. While changes swirl outside the diner, we only feel those as reflected in the lives of the characters.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: The answer to “What’s your favorite August Wilson play?” will probably always be “the one I just saw” but personally, having “come of age” in the late 1960s, I simply loved TWO TRAINS RUNNING. It is admittedly very long (three and a half hours) and, although everyone on stage is great, I thought younger actors might have been cast for two of the roles. But, if you are of a certain age, you’d be a fool to miss it.

Before heading over to the theater, I just had to listen again to one of the saddest blues songs ever written, sometimes known as “Still a Fool” but always covered as “Two Trains Runnin’” by McKinley Morganfield, famous as Muddy Waters: “Well, now, there’s two, there’s two trains running / Well, they ain’t never, no, going my way / Well, now, one run at midnight and the other one / Running just ‘fore day.”

For every character on stage, there are always two trains running and choices to make, but it seemed to me that for the entire neighborhood facing either decay or the bulldozer, and certainly for Sterling just out of prison, Risa who has cut herself (off from life), and Hambone who has gone off the rails, those trains “ain’t never, no, going [their] way.”

L-R Davis, McNeill, Hicks as Hambone, Fisher | Photo credit K.E.G.

At intermission I was invited by PRT’s Artistic Director, Paulette D. Harris, to come over to chat with the play’s director, Edward G. “Ed” Smith, who has directed over his career, seven of the ten August Wilson century plays. I asked him if he had specifically coached the actors in how to walk because their particular blend of strut and stroll took me right back to the 1960s, and he said that, yes, they had spent a lot of time working on all the details of the era. But he also said that he encouraged all of his actors, in order to get August Wilson’s rhythm and timing down, to listen to the blues.

A more standard example of the 12-bar blues, I would submit, is Muddy Waters’ “She Moves Me” “She moves me, man / Honey, and I don’t see how it’s done / She moves me, man / Honey, and I don’t see how it’s done / She got a pocket full of money / Little doll don’t try to help me, though.”

If there is a central character to this wonderful sequence of scenes, it would be Memphis, in whose diner the entire action is set, who is played by a man in his element, the actor named Fisher.

If there is a central character to this wonderful sequence of scenes, it would be Memphis, in whose diner the entire action is set, who is played by a man in his element, the actor named Fisher. His flashes of anger (often directed at Wolf for running a gambling operation on his premises) could be immediately followed by a self-aware moment (when he gives Wolf a dollar to play the numbers himself). It reminded me of Claude Rains’ character in the movie “Casablanca” who was “shocked, shocked” that gambling was taking place at Ricks’, just before collecting his own winnings. Memphis is complicated, and even though he has stories of being abused by whites in his native South which led to him joining The Great Migration north, what we see we do, and his treatment of his only remaining employee, Risa, is degrading.

The stage was populated by a whole host of favorite Paul Robeson Theatre actors, and I had to get over to see Al Garrison as West because he has the most wonderful voice. In fact, at the traditional reception line after the show, I asked if he would say a favorite line from his character, the bible quoting mystic Stool Pigeon in August Wilson’s King Hedley II and he obliged. Ahhh. That voice.

Photo credit: K.E.G.

Because I’m still fixated on Garrison as the mystical Stool Pigeon, I might have cast Garrison as the local sage Holloway, dispenser of advice, and had actor Hugh Davis play the more business-like funeral director West, but both are great actors.

Yet there was no questioning Vincenzo McNeill as the street smart Wolf, who had the right swagger and self-confidence, tempered by a realistic view of how the world works. Marvelous, as was Michael Hicks as Hambone, the actor with pretty much one line – “I want my ham” –repeated over and over, in a role which combines comedy and tragedy using just four words. Hicks had to show us a character that to some might be reviled, might be annoying, might be pitied, but which might be embraced. Well done.

While they are both great actors, I thought that Roosevelt Tidwell III might be a little old for the crazy, romantic, act first and think later, just out of prison Sterling. And, if Sterling were a younger man, then Risa, played by PRT regular Debbi Davis , would be a younger woman.

Also, at one point in the play, Sterling wants to take Risa to a Civil Rights rally, but she doesn’t want to go. I could understand that if she was tired from work, but Risa should be of an age where the idea of progress, of marching, of a rally, should be exciting and so her refusal to go should, I think, be in sharp contrast to her generation. That didn’t come across.

The choice of incidental music before the show and at intermission was a spectacular soundtrack to the late 1960s and it fit perfectly with, yet again, a note-perfect set designed by PRT regular Harlan Penn.

The choice of incidental music before the show and at intermission was a spectacular soundtrack to the late 1960s and it fit perfectly with, yet again, a note-perfect set designed by PRT regular Harlan Penn. From the jukebox with psychedelic design, to the posters for popular shows, to the counter stools repaired with black tape, and the metal kitchen hood just visible, the attention to detail was astounding.

Even though the holidays are approaching and it’s easy to get distracted, I would recommend that you make an effort to attend TWO TRAINS RUNNING. It’s been a great couple of months for local theater companies all over town, and the Paul Robeson Theater is right there with another hit show.

UP NEXT: JUMP by Charly Evon Simpson, directed by Paulette D. Harris, is about a young woman, the death of her mother, a strained relationship with her father, and solace on a bridge running January 17 through Sunday, February 9, 2020.

On Saturday, February 8, 2020, the Buffalo start of the national AUGUST WILSON MONOLOGUE COMPETITION will once again be coordinated by The Paul Robeson Theatre at Buff State’s Rockwell Hall Performing Arts Center. You can hear a variety of high school students as they compete for a chance to advance to the finals in New York City.

Photo credits: K.E.G.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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