Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

Drama about blacks in the ‘60s reflects today’s news

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★☆☆

Risa (Beverly McGriff) and Bennie Lewis (Memphis, right) get caught up in the musings of Sterling (Keita Jones) in “Two Trains Running.” Photo by Steven Wilson.

“Two Trains Running” is a rear view peek at America’s racial turmoil that concomitantly reflects today’s cringe-worthy headlines.

Despite it being somewhat of an anachronism.

With black playwright August Wilson leaning heavily on the n-word.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote “Trains” in 1991 as one piece of a masterful 10-play series, but neither his language nor ghetto portrait are as edgy as, let’s say, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s in the more recent Brother/Sister Plays trilogy.

I find “Trains” to be more a slice of life, centering on dissatisfaction and anger, than a dissection of racial tensions.

Even though it uses the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s as a backdrop.

Martin Luther King’s name is dropped, and a rally following the assassination of Malcolm X does get attention in the Multi Ethnic Theater (MET) drama at the Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco.

All six actors in the work, set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969, adroitly showcase the period and the black working class while juxtaposing the humor and hope of Wilson’s script.

Although a fan used in a hallway to cool the theater occasionally muffles dialogue.

In “Trains,” the frayed eatery is expected to become a casualty of a reconstruction project. And restaurant owner Memphis worries “the white man” will cheat him by paying too little for the business.

The milieu actually is similar to neighborhoods I watched change as a child growing up in a New York City suburb. Blacks typically saw those shifts through a radically different lens than we Caucasians — not as urban renewal but urban removal.

Wilson’s work features six flesh-and-blood characters searching for empowerment but failing to find it easily.

Each character is well defined.

Bennie Lewis’ bug-eyes quickly convey Memphis’ likability — and frustration.

Keita Jones spotlights job-hunting ex-con Sterling as a confused but determined lover not above stealing flowers from a mortuary or teaching a developmentally disabled fellow a black power anthem.

Beverly McGriff, the only female in the cast, makes me believe Risa, an emotion-blocked cook-waitress with a penchant for cutting her legs is willing to change.

Fabian Herd replicates the shady and selfish character of Wolf, a bookie; Geoffrey Grier (who alternates the role with Anthony Pride) fabricates a tunnel-visioned, mentally deficient Hambone; and Vernon Medearis is appropriately unpleasant as black-clad undertaker/real estate magnate West.

Stuart Elwyn Hall fills out the cast as Holloway, a 65-year-old self-styled philosopher.

Curiously, though, I find the most fascinating Wilson characters to be Aunt Ester, an offstage 322-year-old mythic everyone visits to ward off bad things, and the dead Prophet Samuel, another being who never appears yet one whose coffin visage includes ostentatious bling and $100 bills.

Lewis Campbell, who founded the MET and wears hats as its artistic director, executive director and stage designer, skillfully directs the drama.

His diner set, incidentally, feels totally authentic — the kind I long ago liked to frequent.

Four booths, a pass-through window to the kitchen, an old-fashioned pay phone (where Wolf takes 600-to-1 numbers bets), a blackboard on which daily specials are chalked, and an on-again, off-again jukebox that’s occasionally fed quarters.

Wilson’s language in the play, produced in association with Custom Made Theatre, can be poetic. But it also can ramble.

Brief passages can be amazingly revelatory, though.

As in a Memphis rant: “Ain’t no justice. Jesus Christ didn’t get no justice. What do you think you’ll get?”

Or the effortless characterization embedded in Sterling’s nonchalant declaration that “I drove a getaway car once.”

Or West’s optimistic pronouncement that “life is hard but it ain’t impossible.”

“Two Trains Running” is part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, sometimes referred to as the Century Cycle, where each play deals with the African-American experience in a different decade of the 20th century.

Best known probably are “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” both examples of intense theatricality.

During this performance, however, I started squirming not long after intermission because the two-act outing runs half an hour too long, barely a few minutes short of three hours.

Still, it’s important to note that Wilson (who was born Frederick August Kittel Jr.) reputedly started writing on a $10 stolen typewriter he’d pawn when money got tight.

I’m glad he found that keyboard.

“Two Trains Running” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St. (off Bush), San Francisco, through Sept. 12. Evening performances, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $20 to $35. Information: 1-415-798-2682 or info@custommade.org

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or check out his blog at www.vitalitypress.com/

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