This performance is an English Touring Theatre and Royal & Derngate, Northampton co-production of August Wilson’s book ‘Two Trains Running’. Set in 1969 a vibrant black community in Pittsburgh a year after Martin Luther King was assassinated.
The action all takes place in a diner, owned and run by Memphis Lee, it used to be a thriving restaurant, now it is in threat of being torn down as a huge 20-year renovation project is slowly sweeping through the city demolishing buildings. The regulars, far fewer these days, are trying to cope with the poverty trap, police and racial tensions and a changing world with The Black Power movement, with a closer story of the local Minister, Prophet Samuel’s funeral and the chaos it is causing.
We watch seven different characters, whom are a spectrum through the community, live their daily lives through these turbulent times via the diner:
Memphis (Andrew French): runs the diner, wife recently upped and left, refuses to move unless they give him HIS price for the building.
West (Geoff Aymer): the local undertaker, rumours on how he manages to get so rich, ie re-using the caskets, has his own set of rules for dealing with the dead and the living.
Wolf (Ray Emmet Brown): the numbers man, delivering news and gossip throughout the communities as he passes through collecting funds for those in need, charming the ladies and knowing someone who can.
Hambone (Derek Ezenagu): spending every day for 9 and a half years trying to get paid by a white man for the value of his labour would send anyone crazy.
Holloway (Leon Herbert): the elder of the diner regulars who tries to keep the peace with calm advice, was once filled with rage.
Sterling (Michael Salami): young and fresh out of penitentiary trying to find any work he can when there are not many options, and trying to find love.
Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh): waitress and cook at the diner, her self-harming scars are her way of controlling how men see her.
They all, apart from one, share parts of their story over the course of the timeline, which I think is only a week or two, difficult to gauge but not too relevant, but share their stories with passion and a level of detail that makes it real life. The others in the diner, chip in with opinions, sympathies and critique as a group of humans would do. The older generation passing on knowledge to the younger guys, knowing they are not going to listen. There is hope, optimism and a desire to change the world even though it seemed impossible.
The whole stage was the inside of the diner with no scenery changes. A very good use of space and wonderful to see something so full and creative, the attention to detail was high. Outside the diner window we could glimpses of what’s happening down the street.
It was a snippet of life from this time rather than a big story from start to finish, therefore nothing hugely dramatic happened, which you were almost waiting for to begin with, however it rolled along at the right pace, intertwining the character stories and it did tie up the lose ends, which we as an audience would want to see. When I first read the premise of the play, I was concerned it would be too heavy for me and with the length being 2 hours 55 minutes including interval, I was deeply concerned I would have an evening of Black American political history, which I would not understand being an English, white, mid-40s (ish) woman.
However, it wasn’t a history lesson at all, it was a delight to see these characters come to life and be totally engaged in their stories. All the actors have been on big and small screen in their careers therefore the level of professional acting skills was high and completely absorbing – it didn’t feel like 3 hours. They drew you in, they were utterly believable. The number of words in the play is humungous and credit to the actors for brilliant performances throughout.
This review first appeared on GrapevineLIVE
Photo credit Manuel Harlan