A Powerful Two Trains Running at Arena Stage

Well, now, there’s two, there’s two trains running
Well, they ain’t never, no, going my way…”Still a Fool,” Muddy Waters

Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 1969. Many black Americans, fleeing segregation and racism in the south, have settled in northern cities. While lynchings didn’t happen in the north, what did happen was white flight, leaving many urban neighborhoods to descend into crime, poverty, and despair.

Eugene Lee, Reginald Andre Jackson, and David Emerson Toney

The diner owned by Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee) was once bustling with workers and locals who came to enjoy the food and the music. The juke box no longer works and the customers have dwindled to a small group: Wolf (Reginald André Jackson) who runs his numbers game from the diner; Holloway (David Emerson Toney), who seeks advice from Aunt Ester, a spiritual healer he claims is 322 years old; Hambone (Frank Riley III), a mentally impaired individual who still seeks the ham he’s owed by a white man he worked for nine years ago; Sterling (Carlton Byrd), a young man looking for work after being released from the penitentiary; and West (William Hall, Jr.), an undertaker who is one of the few business people still running a profitable enterprise because death never takes a holiday. Serving this crew is the sole waitress, Risa (Nicole Lewis), who has cut up her legs in an attempt to make herself unattractive to men. 

Frank Riley III and Carlton Byrd

Set designer Misha Kachman has transformed Arena’s Fichandler Stage into a classic diner that, while frayed around the edges, still conveys a warm, cozy environment. The diner sign is missing a few lights and the linoleum a little worn, but the seats at the table, the counter, and in the booth, still provide a comfortable gathering place. While Risa seems less than enthusiastic to cook menu offerings like chicken and ribs, she’s quick to spoon out bowls of beans alongside cornbread muffins. And coffee, plenty of coffee, although a running joke is that she provides sugar only when requested. (A nice touch is that when Risa lifts the bean pot’s cover or pours coffee, steam rises, signaling that the food and drinks are hot.)

No one writes better dialogue than August Wilson, known as “America’s Shakespeare.” A downside of Fichlander’s theater in the round is that phrases are often lost, a pity because with Wilson every word should be heard. In all other aspects, this production, which originated at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, easily makes the transition to Arena, thanks to the deft hand of director Juliette Carrillo. Action never lags in this three hour play, and the actors’ physical movements seem natural not scripted. Particularly impressive is Lewis, who moves around the stage carrying out her duties as waitress, while never missing a chance to add her two-cents into the conversation. 

Eugene Lee

With business flagging, Memphis is hoping for a large payout for his diner from the city, whose Urban Development Authority is seizing property. Memphis turns down West’s offer of $15,000, holding out for $25,000, a sum no one in the diner believes is reasonable. Sterling, whose arrest mirrors that of many young blacks who turn to crime in order to survive, is determined to turn his life around. With no job prospects, he places a bet with Wolf and scores $1,200. However, Wolf, under pressure from the higher ups, is forced to cut Sterling’s winnings in half. Those struggles, however, seem less important when Hambone is found dead. His friends from the diner make up the only mourners, with Memphis giving $50 for flowers. 

The ensemble cast is outstanding, each actor creating a character that is believable and memorable. Despite helming a business on the brink of failure, Eugene Lee’s Memphis is the consummate businessman, not tolerating lax service from Risa and carrying himself with dignity. Jackson’s Wolf never stops moving as he takes bets from customers. Toney’s Holloway has the privilege (and the challenge) of reciting some of Wilson’s best dialogue in a booming voice punctuated with forceful hand gestures. Hall manages to make West both graceful and sinister, fitting for an undertaker. (A nice touch are the black gloves which he never takes off.) Riley’s Hambone has limited dialogue, but makes an impression with his physical presence. 

Carlton Byrd and Nicole Lewis 

Byrd’s Sterling is one of the most interesting characters. Despite his time in prison, he hasn’t lost hope for a bright future, one that he believes will include Risa. He works to break down the barriers she has constructed to keep men away. When the broken juke box finally begins to play, the two share a dance that becomes a hopeful moment for what the future may bring. 

Much has been said about the limited role of Risa, which some interpret as Wilson’s comment on how black women were treated at that time. Lewis’ Risa, however, never seems like a minor character. Even when she’s not talking, her presence speaks volumes. While the others tolerate Hambone, she treats him with kindness and respect and, as a result, is most affected by his death. 

While Two Trains Running is set in 1969, it’s hard not to think about the ongoing struggles of black Americans and immigrants in our current political environment. Gentrification under the guise of urban renewal continues to disrupt neighborhoods, pushing longtime residents away from city centers and jobs. Battles that were once won may have to be fought again. Wilson’s plays remind us that we can never take anything for granted.

Listen to Nicole Lewis talk about Two Trains Running on WAT-CAST.

Photos by C. Stanley Photography 
Top photo: Nicole Lewis, Carlton Byrd, and Eugene Lee

Two Trains Running
By August Wilson
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street SW
202-484-0247

About Charlene Giannetti (918 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "19 Daniel Highway," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.