Perhaps the best way to think of August Wilson is as a fabulist. Some of the strongest moments in his plays have invariably been people simply telling the stories of their lives. That is particularly true of "Two Trains Running," which takes place in a little neighborhood restaurant in Pittsburgh in 1969.
The action of the play is almost nonexistent. We hear reports on the lying-in-state of a popular minister in the funeral parlor across the street. A lovable halfwit arrives from time to time demanding a ham that has been stolen from him. The owner of the restaurant has a running battle with someone who uses his public phone for numbers-running. An ex-convict who still has a tendency to lift things that don't belong to him pays court to the tight-lipped waitress, a sullen woman who has carved ridges into her calves.
At times, the exchanges between the characters verge on shtick, but always what keeps the play interesting is Wilson's gift for capturing the rhythms and charm of black speech. His plays have a musical quality that give them interest beyond the circumstances of character or plot.
"Two Trains Running" is the fifth of Wilson's plays chronicling the life of American blacks decade by decade. This play is set in the '60s, but, with the exception of a few references to Malcolm X and to public rallies, nothing about the play could not have taken place just as easily in 1953 or 1946.
Perhaps it is Wilson's point that the bedrock of black life does not change, regardless of the seemingly tumultuous events that grab headlines (and in 1969 they were indeed tumultuous). If so, why is it necessary to make the point decade by decade?
Whatever its weaknesses, the play's strength is its ingratiating cast. If you have Roscoe Lee Browne expatiating on anything - and here that's about all his character has to do - you have a radiant presence on the stage. Equally charming, in a more youthful, virile way, is Larry Fishburne, who plays the ex-con very winningly.
Cynthia Martells has great reserve as the tough waitress, Chuck Patterson a wonderful bravura as the funeral director, constantly lamenting the rigors of his profession. Sullivan Walker has pathos as the halfwit, Anthony Chisholm dash as the numbers operator and Al White strength as the restaurant owner, although his histrionics toward the end seem overdone.
Wilson's music has again been orchestrated with wisdom and flair by director Lloyd Richards.
August Wilson's grand design to explore the black experience with a play set in each decade of the century is obviously right on schedule with his latest - and so far most diffuse - in the series, "Two Trains Running," which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
The title comes, it seems from a blues song, and as Wilson himself puts it: "...There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both." And his play is, generally speaking, concerned with the acceptance of these two trains and also acceptance of that responsibility which is, in a real sense, the price of the ticket. There are no free rides on this railroad.
The play is set in Memphis Lee's restaurant in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1969, and as designed by Tony Fanning, it is a diner that would do Edward Hopper proud.
It is a place with a life of its own, and inhabitants of its own. And a time of its own - a time when the Civil Rights movement was reaching a moment of crisis, or of truth. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were both dead - indeed, one of the few events related in the play is a rally held in Malcolm's memory.
But, as Wilson sees it, the black man in a white man's world is not subject to legislation; his servitude and hope of freedom are facts of history, of understanding and of development.
This philosophy is spread lightly over the three-hour traffic of the play. Earlier I called it diffuse, and the writing does have the leisurely development of themes like a man on a blues gig, its riffs spurting plaintively through melodies of joy and pain.
Nothing much happens - less I think than in any of the earlier plays - things are, were and will be. There are stories here, nuggets of oral history, anecdotes of life and particularly death that cling around the African in his long unacclimatized Euro-cimate - but, from my white perspective, I am talking from the perception of intellect rather than emotion.
The hero is Sterling (Larry Fishburne), a young guy just out of the penitentiary for bank robbery, a man trying to set his world to rights. Entering this diner, he falls in love with a waitress Risa (Cynthia Martells) who has mutilated her legs to make herself unattractive to men.
The diner's other regulars are Wolf (Anthony Chisholm), a numbers runner who represents the main chance the black man has to get a little rich; Holloway (Roscoe Lee Browne), an old corner philosopher who dotes on the mystic remedies and advice of a supposedly 322-year-old woman called Esther; West (Chuck Patterson) the neighborhood undertaker with a style for death and a taste for real estate; and finally Hambone (Sullivan Walker), a mildly deranged man who has been cheated by the local butcher.
Presiding lackadaisically over this slice of character, is the restaurant owner, Memphis (Al White), who was once beguiled out his farm in the South, and now needs the courage to pick himself up and to go back and try again.
Lloyd Richards - Wilson's constant collaborator - has staged the play in a deliberately self-conscious fashion. Hambone is made into a carefully shaped caricature, and while Wolf, Sterling, Memphis and West are presented more naturalistically, Risa, the waitress, is, for example, given movements that are slow to the point of stop, and the garrulity of Holloway is provided with a stylized blurriness.
Not that the acting is anything less than excellent. In particular Browne charms with his moral musings, and Fishburne, an exceptionally easy yet powerful actor, confirms the great impression he made as the tough father in the movie, "Boyz N the Hood."
But all the acting and staging in the world cannot disguise that for white audiences, looking for edification rather than identification, "Two Trains Running" has less immediacy and more padding than the cycle's earlier plays. There are qualities here - times when Wilson can make people jump from the stage into vivid life - but less might have been more, especially if the more had been in focus.
In "Two Trains Running," the latest chapter in his decade-by-decade chronicle of black American life in this century, August Wilson arrives at a destination that burns almost too brightly in memory to pass for history. "Two Trains Running" is Mr. Wilson's account of the 1960's, unfurling at that moment when racial conflict and the Vietnam War were bringing the nation to the brink of self-immolation.
Yet Mr. Wilson's play, which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater, never speaks of Watts or Vietnam or a march on Washington. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is mentioned only once. The garrulous characters, the regulars at a Pittsburgh ghetto lunch counter in 1969, are witnesses to history too removed from the front lines to harbor more than the faintest fantasies of justice. They invest their hopes in playing the numbers, not in distant leaders sowing lofty dreams of change.
So determined is "Two Trains Running" to avoid red-letter events and larger-than-life heroes that it is easily Mr. Wilson's most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate heart of history. In place of a protagonist that a Charles Dutton or James Earl Jones might play is a gallery of ordinary people buffeted by larger forces that they can join or gingerly battle but cannot begin to promote or control. While such 60's props as a gun and cans of gasoline do appear in "Two Trains Running," the evening's most violent dramatic event causes no serious injury and takes place offstage. Even so, a larger, national tragedy is spreading underfoot.
As might be expected in a work that departs from every Wilson effort except "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in its experimental will to demolish the manufactured confrontations of well-made drama, "Two Trains Running" is not without blind alleys. And it is compromised by a somewhat bombastic production, staged by the author's longtime collaborator Lloyd Richards, that sometimes takes off running in a different direction from the writing. But the play rides high on the flavorsome talk that is a Wilson staple. The glorious storytelling serves not merely as picturesque, sometimes touching and often funny theater but as a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view to those outside it.
Much of the talk is prompted by two deaths that filter into Memphis Lee's restaurant, itself doomed to be demolished. The sole waitress, Risa (Cynthia Martells), grieves for Prophet Samuel, an evangelist whose attainments included a cache of jewelry, a white Cadillac, a harem and a huge flock that is viewing his open casket down the street. The one stranger to visit Memphis Lee's, a newly released convict named Sterling (Larry Fishburne), is latently preoccupied with the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, not out of any deep ideological convictions but because a rally in the fallen radical's name at the local Savoy Ballroom gives him a pretext to ask Risa for a date.
Though the issue is never articulated, Mr. Wilson's characters are starting to compare the prophets who offer balms for their poverty and disenfranchisement, and no two representative prophets could be more different than Malcolm X and Samuel. But the play's real question may be, as one line poses it, "How we gonna feel good about ourselves?" The liveliest talkers in "Two Trains Running" are members of an older generation skeptical of all externally applied panaceas, secular and religious.
Memphis (Al White), who is negotiating a price for the city's demolition of his restaurant, is confident he can beat the white man at his own game as long as he knows the rules. To him, those who argue that "black is beautiful" sound like "they're trying to convince themselves." Holloway (Roscoe Lee Browne), a retired house painter turned cracker-barrel philosopher, is not only scathing about white men who exploit black labor but also about any effort by what he calls "niggers" to fight back. He sends anyone with a grievance to a mysterious, unseen prophet, the supposedly 322-year-old Aunt Ester, the neighborhood's subliminal repository of its buried African identity and a magical universe of faith and superstitions.
In some of the richest and most hilarious arias, the marvelously dyspeptic Mr. Browne encapsulates the whole economic history of the United States into an explosive formula and reminisces scathingly of a grandfather so enthralled by the plantation mentality he could not wait to die and pick heaven's cotton for a white God. Even nastier gallows humor is provided by West (Chuck Patterson), an undertaker whose practical view of death has made him perhaps the community's keenest social observer and certainly its wealthiest entrepreneur.
As conceived by Mr. Wilson, the monologues, musical in language and packed with thought and incident, are not digressions; they are the play's very fiber. Such plot as there is involves the fate of a symbolic mentally unbalanced man named Hambone (Sullivan Walker) who pointedly "ain't willing to accept whatever the white man throw at him" and the rising political consciousness and romantic ardor of Sterling, whose sincere efforts to cobble a post-penitentiary life and livelihood are constantly frustrated.
Along with the usual Wilson repetitions and the heavy metaphorical use of Hambone (who is a hammier version of the mentally disturbed Gabriel in "Fences"), the flaws of "Two Trains Running" include its inability to make more than a thematic conceit out of its lone woman, Risa, who enigmatically bears self-inflicted razor scars, and its failure to delve far below Sterling's surface, despite a searching performance by Mr. Fishburne. Mr. Wilson's reticence about his two youngest and most crucial characters turns up most glaringly in the pivotal but underwritten Act II scene that brings them together to the music of a previously dormant jukebox.
Mr. Fishburne, who greets each of Sterling's defeats with pride and heroic optimism, and Mr. Browne, an orator of Old Testament fire, are the jewels of the production. The rest of the cast is at most adequate, with Mr. White's ranting Memphis, whose longer soliloquies punctuate both acts, inflicting the greatest damage. The uneven casting is compounded by the harsh, bright lighting, the flatly realistic set and the slam-bang choreography of a text that needs to breathe rather than hyperventilate. Instead of looking like a production that has been polished during its long development process through the country's resident theaters, "Two Trains Running" sometimes seems the battered survivor of a conventionally grueling road tour.
The play fascinates anyway and makes its own chilling point. Just as this is the Wilson work in which the characters are the furthest removed from both Africa and the Old South (to which the untaken trains of the title lead), so it is also the Wilson play closest in time to our own. "You take something apart, you should know how to put it together," says Sterling early on, referring to a wristwatch he hesitates to dismantle. Rough in finish and unresolved at the final curtain, "Two Trains Running" captures a racially divided country as it came apart. That Mr. Wilson's history bleeds so seamlessly into the present is testimony to the fact that the bringing together of that America is a drama yet to unfold.