“You don’t do nothing but sit around and talk about what you ain’t got.” That’s how Holloway admonishes the other characters in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, playing at the Milwaukee Rep through May 12. “The more you sit around and talk about what you ain’t got, the more you have to talk about.”
Two Trains Running examines the lives of six men and one woman, all searching for what they ‘ain’t got’ in 1969 Pittsburgh. Like August Wilson’s other Pittsburgh Cycle plays (Fences, The Piano Lesson), the story examines race, class, religion, spirituality and human struggle in the city.
The play begins after The Great Migration has brought African-Americans from the south up to the north, where the formerly rural have settled into urban communities on the verge of gentrification and renewal. Memphis Lee is the owner of a small diner where the play takes place. He’s planning to sell the building to the city so it can be torn down for a new development, and he won’t take a penny less than the $25,000 he believes he’s owed.
His usual customers include Holloway, an older retired man, Wolf, a local numbers dealer, and West, the wealthy undertaker. He also employs Risa, a young woman whose legs bear large self-inflicted scars meant to scare off interested men. Early on in the play, a new customer comes to town: Sterling, fresh from the penitentiary and looking to win over Risa with plans to hit it big.
These six characters exist in an interlocked economic and social web, gambling and trading with each other, fighting and loving each other, but they also exist under the thumb of a suffocating oppression, one they struggle to even attempt overcoming.
Memphis breaks down with each failed attempt to get the money he’s owed. Sterling can’t take the thought of more long hours of underpaid and exploitative work with no reward but a broken back and a rich boss. And most tragic of all might be Hambone, another customer who has only repeated the same two sentences for the past ten years — “I want my ham” and “he gonna give me my ham.” An injustice has left Hambone single-mindedly focused on getting what he’s owed from Lutz, the white owner of the market across the street.
Despite the poverty and struggle on display, the play overflows with good humor. Each character brings a unique and funny sense of irony, and Wilson’s writing creates a pitch-perfect back-and-forth between them all.
The play rests firmly on a fantastic cast, who immediately bring us into the world of these characters.
Michael Anthony Williams delivers a standout performance as Holloway. He transitions with remarkable ease from some of the play’s funniest lines to poignant insightful commentary on the stunted lives of the poor African-Americans around him.
Raymond Anthony Thomas is the emotional cornerstone of the play as Memphis Lee, whose noble struggle to get what he’s owed comes out in every outburst, every choked-back tear and every bitter joke. The two younger characters, Risa and Sterling, provide energy, anger and maybe some hope for the future in passionate performances from Chike Johnson and Malkia Stampley, respectively.
Each character is brought to the fore with small unscripted flourishes — like Wolf’s tendency to turn his “How’s everybody?” greeting into a drawn out, swaggering howl, or Sterling’s manic attempts to get a laugh from the suspicious and annoyed diner customers when he first arrives.
Director Timothy Douglas’ skill is visible throughout in the small ways Wilson’s script is adapted to get to the heart of the commentary and human drama unfolding. Douglas is known for masterful adaptations of Wilson, and that reputation is on display throughout Two Trains Running.
By the time the lights dim to black, the audience is left questioning what’s really happened on stage. Has progress been made? Has anyone gotten what was owed them? Does the future look bright? Or are the characters on a dangerous precipice? The questions that will stay with you long past the play’s ending.
Go See It: Two Trains Running at The Rep, through May 12.