Two Trains Running

Two trains, many meanings

August Wilson’s magnum opus, the Pittsburgh Cycle, is comprised of ten plays, each occurring in a different decade of the twentieth century.   “Two Trains Running”, represents the 1960s.  It takes place in the African-American Hill District of Pittsburgh, PA, in 1969.  At that time, great strides were being made in voting rights, civil rights, and women’s rights, but progress is usually uneven and incomplete, and advancement creates its own form of discrimination.


The play, which has much to offer, is dogged by its pedestrian pace, overly ambitious sweep, and some problematic characterizations.  Multi Ethnic Theater’s valiant effort lacks sufficient spark to bring out the best in Wilson’s work.

Memphis’s Diner is the setting of the play, but it has been designated for demolition by eminent domain as part of an urban renewal project.  The diner’s habitues are older black men, whose discourse is aimless and fatalistic, symbolized by their obsession with gambling the numbers.

As played by Bennie Lewis, Memphis is the only character determined to take control of his fate.  Lewis’s eyes are fiery, his look fierce, and his voice gruff, whether avowing that he will force the city to give him his price for the diner or barking orders at Risa, the cook/waitress.  Though the portrayal works much of the time, it would benefit from variation in tone.

Two other focal characters are Wolf, played by Fabian Herd, and Holloway, played by Stuart Elwyn Hall.  Herd is visually striking as the self-interested  numbers runner who dresses like a preening pimp and fancies himself the great ladies man.  Hall also looks his part as the eminence gris – unaspiring, but a thoughtful analyst and philosopher.

Sterling, played by Keita Jones, arrives as a strangely naive young man just out of prison.  However, the depiction reflects neither a bitterness nor a steely resolve that would amplify Sterling’s personality.  Through Sterling, the clash between generations in the black community is revealed.  He tries to gin up support for a political rally honoring Malcolm X, but the diner denizens are unenthused.  Their train has left the station.

And of course, by 1969, a fissure in the civil rights movement had appeared, between those who held to Dr. King’s dream and those who argued that progress would not occur without violence.  Other divides explored by the playwright are the white/black divide, with different standards and opportunities for the races, and the gender divide, with the female Risa being demeaned by Memphis and objectified by Sterling.

This production runs three hours including a brief intermission.  A subplot about Hambone, a gentle, but mentally-challenged soul, deals with abuse from within the black community.  It could be excised without loss of message.  At the same time, some political issues are not well explicated.  Some characters like Memphis and Wolf are well developed.  Yet Sterling’s contradictory actions render him incohesive rather than complex.  Beverly McGriff’s Risa seems oddly passive, despite having boldly disfigured her legs with razor cuts so that she wouldn’t be wanted by a man for her physical attributes.

Director Lewis Campbell designed the staging.  The set ably represents a poor ghetto diner – partly worn out and partly roughed out.  Two booths on either side of the thrust stage abut the front row seats, so that the Gough Street Playhouse becomes even more intimate than usual.  However, Campbell also uses extreme stage locations effectively for the public phone and the kitchen.

Campbell’s direction isn’t as incisive.  Actors are often allowed to speak at normal conversational volume, resulting in mumbled diction and a lack of energy on stage in a play that demands emotive acting to keep the audience fully engaged.  Better guidance to actors would help them better define their characters.  Finally, it is disconcerting to hear stage directions voiced to introduce each scene, as if it were a rehearsal rather than opening night.

“Two Trains Running” plays at Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco through August 30.