On August Wilson's Two Trains Running. Directed by Juliette Carrillo. Fichlander (Arena Stage), until May 6, 2018
“There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death.” And as I write, every evening at Arena;s Fichlander Stage, a brilliant group of actors are getting on and getting off. They are the most compelling passengers I have come across in years of celebrating and crying about life depicted on the floorboards of those moving trains. Here, in the round, with pathos and irony, comedy and tragedy, life is given a circular thrashing, only to conclude in the manifestation of an emotional attitude, the one great playwrights have tackled before August Wilson, and will after he is gone, namely American optimism.
Death is everywhere, from the slow dying of restaurant and black Pittsburgh neighborhood where the drama takes place—to be gentrified, taken over first by the city--from an undertaker across the street who buries everybody sooner or later, who found a sure way of making a living after experimenting as a youth with numbers and other betting games. And we witness the potential for death, in handguns two characters sport at a moment in the play when the audience fears the worst, a cathartic murder, a suicide. And we have the ageless Aunt Esther off stage, 332 years old by one count, who defies death and who counsels those who seek her advice to throw twenty dollar bills into the river, and to keep doing so, until their wishes are realized.
The actors are excellent, seasoned, sure in delivery and convincing. Some are new to Washington stages, coming East from Seattle fiefdoms ( William Hall as West, Reginald Andre Jackson as Wolf). But all leave the audience wanting more and standing in ovation at the play's end—especially David Emerson Toney booming as Holloway.
And I should not mention actors without praising director Juliette Carrillo. The transitions she creates between scenes, giving each character a moment in the spotlight as he or she tussles with some deep-seated memory, accompanied by a harsh and relentless blues, to the sweet, Shakespearean romantic dance—think of Rosalind in As You Like It in that play's enchanted forest-- but here we are transported by a young man, fresh out of jail, and a beautiful girl who cut her legs in order to make herself ugly, and to escape the eyes of marauding men, dancing in a beaten-up, dying ember of a restaurant with only a few items left on the menu.
One of those items, if I may stretch the metaphor—one that informs the whole play—is dignity. What is Man's worth? How much should the city pay Memphis as compensation when he is kicked out? Memphis wants 25 thousand dollars, nothing less. West (played with marvelous cynicism by William Hall) at first offers fifteen, and then twenty, as long as he can use the restaurant as leverage in some other insurance schemes he is juggling. Memphis, will have none of it. Memphis had been stripped of land in the South by an ironic clause in the deed (he would lose rights to the property if he finds water). And how can a farmer manage without water? So Memphis, using his smarts, finds that water. And like a character suffering from Beckettian existence he is denied his rights as a result
So he moves North—compelled rather, as he has to escape some hard-arm tactics (with lynching implied)--and he sets up the restaurant which is now both insurance and manifestation of optimism. He will get his twenty five thousand he says, and he will go back South and reclaim the land that belonged once to him.
And Sterling will play the numbers Risa gives him, seven, eight and one, for seven lashes on her left leg and eight on her right and one in a place only she can know—Wilson is brilliant in coaxing out our laughter in the midst of harsh and bitter reality. Sterling will learn the location of that last cut. And he is lucky. The numbers are called. And he is a winner, along with a number of others in the neighborhood. So the issuer of the numbers—the white businessman off stage—decides to cut the winnings in half (invoking certainly some buried clause, like the one that denied Memphis his water). So what choice do the winners have? Accept half or go into the streets and shout (like supporters of Black Power and the late Malcolm X, which provides another theme, underlying this play, namely how will the black man re establish the dignity stripped of him in slavery.
But as I survey the lines of the seven characters in Two Trains Running I find myself at a loss about some basic terms in describing plays. I laughed a lot during the show, so much that I cried. Does that make this play a comedy with a bitter backbone? A tragic comedy? But nobody dies directly on stage. A comedy? A romance? Or maybe I should call it a bittersweet, romantic comedy with muted tragic elements.
These elements happen off stage—the assassination of Malcolm X, the chasing of Memphis from his land in the South, the death of Prophet Samuel, and the dying in sleep of Hambone. But on stage, we see characters surviving their moments in the desert, on the plank at sea, and somehow, with their resourcefulness or a combination of grits, intelligence and luck, they find a way back to the deck, out of the desert. They even find their love (Sterling and Risa), or get more than they expect from the city, a surprising Deux ex machina--thirty five thousand dollars--not twenty five, not a hidden clause that could lead to nothing, but thirty five thousand dollars. We know it will help Memphis retire. We know it won't be enough to satisfy the grandiose dreams he now hurls to the audience. Hambone has died without his ham. But Memphis says. “Risa, take this fifty dollars and get some flowers. Get him a big bunch. Put on there where it says who it's from ...say it's from everybody...everybody who ever dropped the ball and went back to pick it up. “ He then adds that when he gets back....if I get back from seeing Stoval (to reclaim the land he lost)...I'm gonna open me up a big restaurant right there on Centre Avenue/ I'm gonna need two or three cooks and seven or eight waitresses...”
Sterling enters the scene then “ carrying a large ham” as the directions state. And he says to Mr. West “ Say, Mr. West...that's for Hambone's casket.”
Hambone finally gets his ham, after nine and a half years of persistent effort, but only after he has died. He is given a dignified burial. And the flowers are from everybody who ever dropped the ball and went back to pick it up.
Congratulations, director, cast, crew, sound designer, and shapers of set, costume and lighting, and of course the playwright as well. Do not miss this production of Two Trains Running. Through April 29, 2018 in the Arena Stage's Fichlander theater.
--Indran Amirthanayagam (http://indranamirthanayagam.blogspot.com)