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Review: Two Trains Running 

Tyler Gillespie on the August Wilson production at Anthony Bean Community Theater

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At a funeral parlor across the street from Memphis Lee's diner in Pittsburgh, the neighborhood's Reverend "Prophet Samuel" has been laid rest. The year is 1969 and around the city, people rally for civil rights. Amid the turmoil, Lee is being forced to sell his business, a place where people in the neighborhood hang out.

  Two Trains Running, recently presented by the Anthony Bean Community Theater, was written by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson and is part of his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, featuring decade-by-decade stories of African-American life in the 20th century. This show takes place entirely in Lee's restaurant, which is represented at Bean theater by a stage filled with tables, chairs and a bar. Neighborhood happenings are relayed over morning coffee and meatloaf.

  As part of a revitalization plan, the city is buying properties and wants Lee's (Wilbert Williams Jr.) restaurant, but he will not settle for the amount he has been offered. As Lee, Williams is natural onstage and gives his character a skillful range — cracking jokes one minute and venting righteous anger the next. His regular customers include the lanky and gossip-stirring Holloway (Alphe Williams) and Wolf (Dwight E. Clay), the "numbers" man who takes bets every morning. Clay gives a charismatic performance as the slick-talking womanizer.

  Another customer, Hambone (Harold X. Evans), is devastated by the neighborhood's social and economic decline. For nine years, he has gotten up every morning to stand outside an adjacent business and demand payment (a ham) for labor he completed. Evans gives a surprising amount of depth to his two repeated lines of: "I want my ham!" and "He gonna give me my ham!" Hambone, though homeless and downtrodden, is extremely persistent. He becomes a symbol of neighborhood resistance, but his troubled plight drives much of Act 2.

  The show spans six days, during which Sterling (Roscoe Reddix Jr.) is released from the penitentiary. He finds his spot at the restaurant and sets out to find a job. Sterling also flirts with Risa (Coti Sterling Gayles), who doubles as the restaurant's cook and waitress. At first Risa wants nothing to do with Sterling. To ward off male advances, she once took a razor to her legs, leaving long scars. The two develop a friendship that eventually leads to a deeper connection. The sprouting of that relationship felt rushed, but the two actors shared great chemistry onstage. Gayles showed control over her emotions and reactions to bad news, though Risa becomes unhinged as the neighborhood devolves into an increasingly frantic environment.

  Two Trains Running emotionally explores social and economic plights of blacks in the late 1960s. While there are plenty of laughs — the characters greatly enjoy ribbing each other — the narrative bluntly deals with the era's racial attitudes. It was an impressive production, featuring a great script and some of the theater's most talented actors.


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