"Two Trains Running" is as close to a flawlessly presented play as any I've seen. The August Wilson work, with its searing look at the realities of African-American life in the urban North in 1969, opened Saturday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bowmer Theatre and runs through July 7.
The times, they are a changin' in 1969 America. The country is in the midst of the Vietnam War and sweeping social movements — civil rights, the Great Society, War on Poverty, the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps.
But you wouldn't know it from the lives of the people we meet in Memphis Lee's shabby diner in Pittsburgh's dying Hill District. This is not a play about the big picture. It is the story of the minutiae of the lives of very ordinary people, people trying to make life work in hardscrabble times that are magnified by pervasive racism.
Director Lou Bellamy is the founder and artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn. August Wilson was a member of Penumbra in the 1980s and the company has produced more of his plays than any other theater. Bellamy's profound knowledge of Wilson and his work shows in the nuanced and complex performances he has created with his excellent cast.
Bellamy makes every word — spoken or unspoken — count. Little gestures, too. Things like the shuffle of the waitress' tired feet as she brings one more cup of coffee. The hesitation in a numbers runner's swagger when he's faced with telling a winner that the pot has been arbitrarily cut. The momentary gleam in a mentally impaired handyman's eye as he mimics the black power salute and mumbles "black is beautiful."
All of this is enhanced by Vicki Smith's meticulously detailed set, Mathew LeFebvre's subtle costumes and Martin Gwinup's evocative score.
Wilson's play gives an almost voyeuristic glimpse into the lives of these characters, using the language black people spoke to one another. At first, the casual use of the n-word between these people is jarring. But it's one thing for a black man to use it with another black man as a shorthand reference to their shared experience. It's another thing entirely when it's used by a white man as an epithet or in contempt.
Wilson reminds us that whatever our economic or social level, whatever our European ethnic background, white people in America were — and in many ways still are — better off.
As Holloway (Josiah Phillips), the neighborhood philosopher, remarks, when the white man could get the black man's work for free, the black man had employment. Suddenly, now that the white man has to pay, there are no jobs.
Look at Hambone (Tyrone Wilson), the slow-witted handyman. The delicatessen owner Lutz had Hambone paint his fence, offering him a ham if he did a good job. Hambone did an excellent job but Lutz then decided the job was worth only a chicken, which Hambone angrily refused. Now, every morning, Hambone stands in front of Lutz's store proclaiming "I want my ham." The phrase becomes a metaphor for being given less than what you're worth.
Wolf (Kenajuan Bentley), for all his bravado and apparent self-assurance, only ekes out a living as a numbers runner, using other people's pay phones for his daily contacts. Sterling (Kevin Kenerly), newly paroled from prison, can find no legitimate work. Risa (Bakesta King), the long-suffering waitress, knows she is stuck in this job, even though the men around her constantly humiliate her, treating her either as a slave or a sex object.
Only the neighborhood undertaker, West (Jerome Preston Bates), has prospered. In the Hill District, death is the only constant. The more well-to-do are willing to pay for unnecessarily gaudy caskets. For the poor, welfare pays a minimum that covers West's overhead.
Memphis (Terry Bellamy), the owner of the diner, sees the buyout of his property by urban renewal as his only way out. The predatory undertaker may be offering him a quick, sure price, but Memphis wants what he considers fair.
Playwright Wilson sets up all kinds of potential for mayhem. Some stolen flowers, a reference to insurance money in case of arson, a local rally in memory of Malcolm X, even a caustic, almost offhand reference to the fact that if a black man uses the n-word and "gun" in the same sentence, it can get him arrested if he says it in the wrong place. By then, Wilson has made it clear that mayhem is not necessarily violent. It can be as simple as dealing with the ghosts of your own past.
As with other plays in Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," chronicling the African-American experience throughout the 20th century, the playwright brings us his unseen character, Aunt Ester. She is the source of the race's "blood memory," a tie to an African past, to tradition, to cultural honesty.
In "Two Trains Running," her advice — to Holloway, to Sterling, to West, and, ultimately, to Memphis — becomes the key to the play's real conflict and its resolution.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.