August Wilson was to theater what the best of jazz composers are to music. The casual listener will appreciate the sounds and the beauty – or pain – of the music. But when the selection stretches beyond the concepts of the listeners’ understanding or imagination, they are ready to move on. However, a person with a true love for the art form is open to exploring and dissecting the ideas expressed, deconstructing concepts and broadening their understanding.
If Wilson could say it with one word, he’d use five instead. His decision to do so was not self-serving. He left no stone unturned as far as expressing the many ways black people can turn a phrase. The words could be used to mean more than one thing – or nothing at all. But like with all his plays, “Two Trains Running” – which is currently playing through January 26 at the Edison Theatre, thanks to the Black Rep – illustrates black people’s unique way with words as the foundation for our culture.
The Black Rep knows the nuances of August Wilson’s words as well as just about any institution within the lexicon of American theater. When they completed his cycle of 10 plays that reflect each decade of black life within the 20th century, only two other theater companies in the nation had done so. More than halfway through their second cycling, The Black Rep was presented with the August Wilson American Century Cycle Award just ahead of Friday’s opening night performance by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Theater Critic Christopher Rawson.
With their second staging of “Two Trains Running,” the company has another successful interpretation of Wilson’s work under its belt.
Set in 1960s Pittsburgh against the backdrop of the front end of urban blight, a group of characters are bound by the routine of a local diner that is among the few constants as their community becomes a casualty.
In director Ed Smith, The Black Rep has found the Quincy Jones of August Wilson plays. He is a gifted orchestrator that gives each of his players the opportunity to riff – and at the perfect cadence. Too fast, and the intention and interpretation would be lost on the listener. Too slow and the play would drag because the words themselves are responsible for most of the action.
Smith hits the sweet spot where the actors almost seem to be in song as they effortlessly express the natural rhythm and flow of the exchange that that makes listening to black people engaged in conversation as entertaining as the topic they are discussing.
Broadway veteran and St. Louis native James A. Williams delivers a grounded performance as Memphis, diner owner and anchor of the ensemble. Ron Himes and Williams play particularly well against each other with Himes’ portrayal as Holloway, the wise elder of the crop of personalities all too familiar to those familiar with the black American experience.
Black Rep fresh faces Jason Little and Travis Banks made impressive debuts with their respective roles, especially Travis Banks as Hambone. He is charged with the task of the recurring character theme of Wilson that dances between madness and moral compass.
Little doesn’t present the street savvy that one would expect from Sterling, the young man trying to find his way in life after a brush with the law set him back. But what he lacks in grit and edge, he more than makes up for in charm – especially in his interactions with Risa. With his portrayal of West, the wealthy undertaker that is as stiff as one of the corpses he prepares for burial, J. Samuel Davis’ reputation as one of the most brilliant stage actors in St. Louis continues. The role is brief and doesn’t require much more than a commitment to rigidity. But Davis manages to add charm to the dry character that serves as an antagonist of sorts. His few scenes leave an impression and add a special seasoning to the chemistry of the ensemble that is rounded out by the steady performances of Carl Overly Jr. as Wolf and Sharisa Whatley as Risa.
The production elements of the Black Rep’s “Two Trains Running” add a vibrancy that authenticates the experience of inner-city America in the late 1960s – particularly Peter and Margery Spack’s set and Daryl Harris’ costumes.
The Black Rep’s presentation of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running continues through Sunday, January 26 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. For more information call (314) 534-3807 or visit www.theblackrep.org.