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Race! A competition. Auto race, horse race, running race. But race means something very different to a people who, because of their race, have, for centuries, been on the losing end of a race.
I grew up in Queens, in a white neighborhood not far from a black one. My elementary school was white, my high school was mixed. Liberal and aware of how words can denigrate people, my parents taught me the proper word for dark-skinned people: The word was “Negro.” To say “black” was insulting, and of course we never heard the word “nigger” in my home or even among my friends. We did hear the word “colored” to describe Negroes, but I was confused, because I thought colored meant mixed race.
And then I found myself in high school, in a real race with the black kids there. That was because I was a runner. I was fast. And I was one of the very few white kids on the Andrew Jackson track team, one of the very best in New York City.
August Wilson, who grew up in Pittsburgh, wrote plays about the black experience across the 20th century. Two Trains Running, the seventh in a series known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, takes place in 1969. It premiered in 1990. By then, he’d already won Pulitzer Prizes for The Piano Lesson and Fences. The tenth and final play of the cycle, Radio Golf, premiered just before Wilson’s 2005 death.
Challenges at a pivotal time
Two Trains Running presents no simple description or prescription about the challenges of being a black man at that pivotal time in history. Set in the diner of one Memphis Lee, Wilson’s play presents six men whose varied experiences give us a full look at the times.
Wolf (Darian Dauchan) is a young man trying to make a living in the numbers racket. Sterling (U.R.) is the new guy in town; he recently got out of the penitentiary and is trying to figure out how to move on with his life. Holloway (Damien J. Wallace) is an old-timer, insightful, but also bitter about his grandfather’s Uncle Tom attitude. Memphis (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.) owns the diner and is trying to get a fair settlement from the city, which is about to demolish his diner under the laws of eminent domain. Hambone (Kash Goins) is a damaged soul who was cheated for a job he did a decade earlier. And West (E. Roger Mitchell) is the undertaker who is often left to pick up the pieces of lives that have ended.
Covering all bases
The ensemble’s fine acting aside, Two Trains Running is an important play because of its humanity. There are as many points of view as there are characters. Each struggles with his connections with women; each is trying to figure out how to earn money in a world that has not valued the work and effort of the black man. And each has his own view of faith.
The one woman, Risa, (Lakisha May) the waitress, refers to a prophet she believes in, while others belittle the clergy as just men seeking money from the collection plate. Some believe that the only way out is to hit “the number.” Then there is the old Aunt Esther, who we never meet, who lives behind a red door down the street and offers redemption for tossing money into the river. These men aren’t stupid regarding the old fortuneteller.
They aren’t believers in the traditional sense, but they try to keep all bases covered while they seek their places in the American landscape. And while we come to understand these men and the times they live in, we are also amused by the humor these men have not lost in their journeys. Wilson is not just profound; he is funny too.
This finely produced play was directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, a woman. It is such a joy to see that the Arden didn’t feel it necessary to have a man direct a play about men. Understanding a human condition need not be confined to only those who have experienced it: sensitive, intelligent people can comprehend and create art outside the confines of their own lives. Kudos to Myrick-Hodges for her outstanding direction.
I was privileged when I had the opportunity to travel the subways, to chat in the locker rooms, to run beside my black track mates many years ago. I was fortunate to be invited to a black church for Christmas when I was barely 17. And I was privileged to see August Wilson’s play endure beyond his years.
What, When, Where
Two Trains Running by August Wilson. Raelle Myrick-Hodges directed. Through April 10, 2016 on the F. Otto Haas Stage at Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-8900 or ardentheatre.org.
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