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Two Trains Running – Multi Ethnic Theatre

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith

The Multi Ethnic Theatre in association with Custom Made Theatre presents August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running.”

“Two Trains Running,” which premiered in 1990, is set in the 1960s. It is one in a series of Wilson’s plays for each decade from the 1900s through the 1990s called the “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The plays are about Black lives in America.   Opening night at Custom Made Theatre there was a lighting glitch so someone offstage verbalized the lighting cues. Nevertheless, it was not a problem.

“Trains,” takes place in 1969 over a few days; it was directed by Lewis Campbell (who also designed the set).   Wilson, like other 20th Century playwrights, such as Eugene O’Neill, wrote plays that unfold slowly, asking the audience’s patience as the characters take their time telling their stories. There is a lot of talk and very little action. The dialogue throughout concerns Black’s relationship to the white man, much of it tracks with the current white-cops-shooting-innocent-Blacks milieu. A major character in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” is Aunt Esther, mentioned, but never seen. In earlier plays, she is 285 years old. In “Trains” she is 322. She is known as the “washer of souls”. All believe that if you visit Aunt Esther and do as she says, your wish will come true. Yet she is rarely home or is “sleeping.”

With the audience on three sides of the realistic set, depicting a typical diner complete with booths, a jukebox, and pass-through window to the kitchen, we felt we were patrons in Memphis Lee’s (an excellent Bennie Lewis, whose scowl almost outdoes the late Toshiro Mifune’s) diner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with his regulars. Prices written on a blackboard for fried chicken with dumplings, beans and corn bread, and steak and potatoes range from 65 cents to $2.35; and coffee is a nickel.

Sleek, catlike, well-dressed Fabian Herd plays 40s-something Wolf, a numbers-runner. Old man owner Memphis Lee, who comes off angry most of the time, railing at cook/waitress Risa (played with quiet introspection by Beverly McGriff), warns Wolf about using the diner’s payphone for his business. The city wants to buy his building cheap and tear it down, part of the gentrification of the city, forcing out black communities. He holds out for a higher price. A heavy-set, older man, Holloway (Stuart Elwyn Hall) sprawls in his booth, doing what looks like crossword puzzles, or studying racing forms; he often interjects philosophical comments. Keep an eye on the actor to catch his facial expressions as he listens to the others. For most of the first act we hear about West, the undertaker- black suit, black hat, black gloves. When we finally meet him (Vernan Medearis ), we are surprised. He appears to have once been a much larger man. Sporting a gray goatee, he comes in for his cuppa, always reminding Risa to bring the sugar packets. He talks about the man he’s burying for whom a crowd of mourners line the block for a last look, and the treasure the dead man is bringing into the afterlife. He boasts that he will never go out of business. People are always dying. Opening night, Anthony Pride replaced Geoffrey Grier as the believable, pathetic character of Hambone. Hambone is obviously mentally ill. Seems he was duped into painting a fence and never got paid what was promised. Other regulars want him to shut up, and some sympathize, especially Risa.

Sterling (a stocky, handsome Keita Jones), a newcomer, appears. He is a young ex-con who brings to the diner the current events of the time about which the others seem uninterested or cynical, and a stack of flyers for a Malcolm X rally which is building up outside. He wants a girlfriend and courts Risa. Risa has mystery behind her, which is obvious physically, but doesn’t speak about it, leaving us to wonder what she is all about. The play ends with Sterling rushing in with Hambone’s payment. There’s an explosion offstage and sirens.

I encourage you to see this play which runs through August 30.

Go to for information and tickets.

In August 2016, Multi Ethnic Theatre will present Wilson’s last play, “Radio Golf” (August in August) at the Gough Street Playhouse.