August Wilson’s ‘Two Trains Running’ at The Arena Stage

2018-04-29T12:56:45+00:00 Theater|
  • Two Trains Running by August Wilson

August Wilson’s modern-day classic play, Two Trains Running has recently extended its run at The Arena Stage in Washington, D.C through May 6, 2018.

Two Trains Running is a powerful play that depicts social and economic issues in the late 1960’s and is primarily centered around a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From the moment the play opens, it is made clear to the audience that the Hill District of Pittsburgh is experiencing the beginning stages of gentrification and the main characters are concerned with their futures as a result.

While the subject of racism and social injustice runs throughout the performance, playwright August Wilson manages to fit these all-consuming themes into smaller, manageable, everyday-life conversations. It is this talent that makes Wilson’s plays so enjoyable and yet so poignant at the same time. Audiences walk away thoroughly entertained and more educated because Wilson makes it a point to let the subject matter be what it is rather than hit the audiences over the head with it.

Eugene Lee as Memphis Lee, Reginald Andre Jackson as Wolf, and David Emerson Toney as Holloway.

Eugene Lee as Memphis Lee, Reginald Andre Jackson as Wolf, and David Emerson Toney as Holloway.

A new production of the play is now running at The Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and has proven to be an overnight hit. The actors are spot on, the long run-time flies by, the sets are simple but perfect for a theater-in-the-round performance… and the best news is the run has now been extended due to high demand. You can still get tickets and trust me, you absolutely should.

August Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle

August Wilson (1945-2005) wrote a series of ten plays under the title of The Pittsburgh Cycle (AKA Century Cycle or The American Century Cycle). Each play of the series aims to show the everyday life and experiences of black men and women throughout the 20th century. The cycle includes some of the most famous Wilson plays: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, and of course Fences, which was later developed into a critically acclaimed movie staring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. (Two Trains Running follows Fences according to the order of decades.) Most of The Pittsburgh Cycle takes place in the same neighborhood as Two Trains, the Hill District.

What is fascinating about the writing style of August Wilson is that is easily speaks to all cultures and races. Wilson does not write his plays for a black audience, nor does he write his plays specifically for whites, Asians, Latinos or any other culture. He writes about black characters and the struggles of a black culture but he does not write for an audience of any particular race. Everyone should feel welcome and everyone should go experience his powerful productions.

The Cast of Two Trains Running at The Arena Stage

The current D.C. production of August Wilson’s play stars an extremely talented cast, all who inhabit their roles and are beyond convincing as their characters.

Eugene Lee as Memphis Lee, Nicole Lewis as Risa, and David Emerson Toney as Holloway (from Seattle production with same cast)

Eugene Lee as Memphis Lee, Nicole Lewis as Risa, and David Emerson Toney as Holloway (from Seattle production with same cast)

Eugene Lee plays Memphis Lee, the owner of a diner about to fall victim to the gentrification of the Hill District, and Nicole Lewis beautifully embodies the quiet, sole waitress of the diner, Risa. The dynamic between Lee and Lewis is perfection and while Lewis doesn’t always have much to say, her looks and reactions to all the characters speak louder than words.

Reginald Andre Jackson as Wolf, Carlton Byrd as Sterling, and David Emerson Toney as Holloway.

Reginald Andre Jackson as Wolf, Carlton Byrd as Sterling, and David Emerson Toney as Holloway.

The regular diner patrons couldn’t be more entertaining. Reginald Andre Jackson is instantly convincing as Wolf, a sly numbers runner for an unseen group that no one should mess with. David Emerson Toney as Holloway is perfect comic relief that occasionally delivers some of the most powerful lines in the entire play. (If you haven’t seen the play, learn the phrase “on the read door”, you’ll learn to both love it and recite it over and over again during the performance.) Holloway is easily my favorite character and a large part of that was due to Toney’s portrayal.

Frank Riley III as Hambone and Carlton Byrd as Sterling

Frank Riley III as Hambone and Carlton Byrd as Sterling

Two of the lesser seen, but no less important, characters are West and Hambone. These two characters might be talked about more than they appear onstage but they are absolutely relevant to the plot. Frank Riley III takes on the character of Hambone, a man who only says a few repeated words time and time again and despite this, Riley manages to draw great emotion and sympathy from the audience. When Lee lashes out in annoyance, the audience is ready to stick up for Hambone; a lot of this is a testament to how much Riley has done with a character.

William Hall, Jr. as West and Eugene Lee as Memphis Lee

William Hall, Jr. as West and Eugene Lee as Memphis Lee

West, potrayed by William Hall, Jr., is the richest man in the Hill District but still has a powerful bond with the financially less-fortunate patrons of the diner. Hall doesn’t spend a great deal of time onstage but when he arrives, his manner is easy and his delivery is spot on. It is easy to see why his character garners so much respect around town.

Carlton Byrd as Sterling

Although Holloway might be my favorite character for entertainment purposes, Sterling comes in as a close second. It speaks volumes to the performance of actor Carlton Byrd that the character of Sterling annoyed me so much for the first third of the play and yet, by the end, I couldn’t have found him more endearing. Byrd is the biggest revelation from what was a brilliant production from start to finish. Given the high caliber performance from each cast member, it is almost impossible to stand out and, yet, somehow, Byrd does just that.

The Diner Set and The Original Jukebox

The entirety of Two Trains takes place in Memphis Lee’s diner, which is crafted for the in-the-round Fichandler Stage space inside The Arena Stage theater by designer, Misha Kachman. The blocking and positioning of each scene allows the characters to move freely and be seen and heard by all members of the audience. From the entrances and exits to the tables and diner counter, the set never changes yet it never feels stagnant or boring.

Nicole Lewis as Risa and Carlton Byrd as Sterling dancing in front of the jukebox from the original, Broadway production.

Nicole Lewis as Risa and Carlton Byrd as Sterling dancing in front of the jukebox from the original, Broadway production.

The jukebox, which doesn’t work for the majority of the play, is a very special set piece which was used in the original, Broadway production, and then moved to Wilson’s home when the play closed down. This set piece holds significant weight and it is obvious how much the actors respect it. Even as their characters get angry with the broken jukebox, the actors can’t help but treat it gingerly and with care. It is a very special addition to a very special production.

Get Your Tickets Now!

Be aware that the play is one of the longer plays I’ve ever seen; I’m not sure everyone in the audience understood the length as we saw several individuals leave during the intermission and I seriously doubt it was because they were not enjoying the performance. You will want to stay for the entire thing and the end is definitely something you’ll want to see. According to The Arena Stage, the play is running 3 hours long and this includes a 15 minute intermission.

Directed by Juliette Carrillo, the play is running on an extended schedule through May 6th – get your tickets and learn more at arenastage.org (matinees run on Saturdays and Sundays).