Some of the puzzles in Two Trains Running are immediately open to us now. As this is the seventh Syracuse Stage production from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh-based “20th Century Cycle” of 10 plays, we enter the theater prepared. We know the dimensions of the Hill District, where Wilson grew up. The playwright, a magical realist in the mold of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, loves recurrent symbolic characters. We nod familiarly toward the conjure woman Aunt Esther living behind the red door; she is now reported to be 322 years old, the same number of years between the introduction of slavery into the colonies and the play’s 1969 setting. All the play’s characters appear to be of flesh and blood, some of it scarred flesh, but they also speak for ideas and values greater than their own experience.
For all of his subtlety, Wilson loves assertive metaphors and dares to put meaning boldly on the surface. Is a diner’s jukebox broken? His characters cannot be comforted by the blues until it is repaired.
The “two trains running” of the title are the opposing
choices facing African Americans at the end of a turbulent decade. That
could be the nonviolent civil rights movement and integration of Martin
Luther King Jr. vs. the no-c
Despite his urban name, Memphis has a backstory of rural oppression, but Sterling, nominally an ex-con, arrives in a different dimension. He tells us that his mother swallowed seven cents before he was born, and he was delivered with a nickel in one hand and two pennies in the other. No one treats this as a far-fetched claim.
Longtime students of Wilson recognize the magical motif as identifying Sterling with the Trickster, a figure of world mythology prominent in many African traditions such as the Yoruba, where he is called Eshu. Tricksters may be benevolent, but they thwart the wishes of the other gods. Further, Wilson signals his view of him with the name “Sterling,” a device as old as Charles Dickens, who called it a “ticket name.”
In the Wilson cycle, characters come and go, but the setting in the Hill remains constant. A top neighborhood issue there and elsewhere toward the end of the 1960s was slum clearance, known more euphemistically as “urban renewal.” More waggishly, it was also known as “Negro removal,” a phrase that does not appear in the play. The current debate in downtown Syracuse about what to do with the land under Route 81 is premised on the now common assumption that the route of the highway was indeed “Negro removal.” A photo display in the Syracuse Stage lobby of the demolished 15th Ward, our equivalent of the Hill, invites comparison with what we see on stage in Two Trains Running. And the threat to the diner of Negro removal is a constant source of tension throughout the play.
Memphis Lee’s diner, a black-run enterprise, is a place for talking. Scenic designer William Bloodgood’s single set, well-lighted by Helen Q. Huang, fleetingly evokes William Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting, but friendlier. Director Timothy Bond’s staging puts much space between characters, who can stake out different slices of turf. At far stage left we hear the slick-talking numbers-runner Wolf (LeLand Gantt), plying his trade from a vintage wooden phone booth. He might sport stylish duds, but Wolf (yet another ticket name), selling the promise of wealth through random chance, isn’t bringing in enough profit to cover his overhead.
In a booth at far stage right sits sexagenarian Holloway (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), a retired housepainter, thin, reedy and frail, who benefits from some of Wilson’s sharpest dialogue, often sardonic. “Nothing left around here but niggers killing one another; that’s never going out of style.” Comparable old men in Wilson plays, like Toledo in Radio Golf, come with a phenomenal grasp of history and unmistakably speak sentiments of the playwright.
Moving in from the kitchen is the taciturn waitress Risa (Erika LaVonn), and entering regularly and crossing the stage is the black-clad undertaker from across the street, West (William Hall Jr.). In a running gag, West orders coffee with sugar, and then neglects to pour the sugar. We quickly notice that Risa’s legs are scarred and later learn she has done this to herself, seven to one leg, eight to the other (more magic numbers, much like the ones Wolf is selling). She wants to deter male attention. West is resented for his mordant calling, his affluence and his conniving. When Memphis cannot get the price he wants for his diner from the city, West makes a deeply suspicious counter-offer.
Two Trains Running extends nearly three hours, even though there is no love story, murder, theft or mystery to be solved. In that time Wilson holds us best with a kind of prose poetry in African-American rhythms, with many characters speaking the kind of non-standard English generations of schoolmarms tried and failed to bleach out of black America. Each of these characters performs in an individual style that whites who have worked alongside blacks in integrated environments will recognize as actual. Not a one is an imitation white character, nor is any one a type.
Wilson and director Bond give each character an arc, with revelations to come, not only as relates to the central action but also to themselves. Risa might appear to be as pouty and uningratiating as possible, but she’s not a misanthrope. Wait until the jukebox is fixed.
More than any play we have seen this season Two Trains Running is about acting. Audiences who remember William Hall Jr. as the severely retarded man who breaks out of character in The Boys Next Door (October 2011) will delight in the surprises he pulls out of undertaker West. Wilson, unlike his contemporaries David Mamet or Tony Kuschner, believes in long speeches, prose arias where a performer’s abilities are put to the sternest tests. As Memphis, G. Valmont Thomas, a man who also played Macbeth at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, takes the laurels. Memphis can be short-sighted and is not as clever as Sterling, and he treats Risa badly. But when Thomas lets the words rip, his Memphis can make us snort with delight, and he can pierce the heart.
Lastly, a neighborhood character is the mentally challenged Hambone (Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.), who’s been complaining for 11 years about not getting payment for work done for a white butcher. In a Wilson play no madman goes unheeded, and it takes a Trickster to hear him.
This production runs through Feb. 17. See Times Table for information.