October 27th, 2011

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#461 – Dick Bernard: Two Trains Running

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Last night we attended August Wilson’s play, Two Trains Running, at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre. It is a play first performed in the late 1980s, and set in the 1969 African-American community of the Hill District in Pittsburgh.

The Penumbra engagement runs through Sunday, October 30. (click on photo to enlarge)

Two Trains Running is one of August Wilson’s ten now famed “Pittsburgh Cycle”, ten plays, one about each decade of the the Twentieth century, as experienced by African Americans. All but one of the plays is set in his home town of Pittsburgh.

I’ve seen eight of the ten, nearly all at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. Last nights performance was also at the Penumbra, the second time I’d seen the play there.

There is more than adequate internet information about the play accessible here. Other blog entries I’ve written about August Wilson are accessible here and here. Both include photos I took of his Pittsburgh in 1998.

August Wilson is now an American institution with two Pulitzer Prizes for his work.

Set simply in a down-at-the-heels restaurant in the Hill District, Two Trains Running has seven characters: the owner, the waitress, and five customers who, in two acts, eight scenes and three hours, comment very powerfully on the matter of personal stories, relationships and contemporary history.

It is a time of tension in the United States and particularly in the African-American community. Pittsburgh’s Hill District is being killed to be reborn through urban-renewal; Malcolm X, though dead some years, lives on in demonstrations occurring somewhere in the city. There remain “two trains running” from Pittsburgh to Jackson, Mississippi, home to the Restaurant owner till the violence of racism drove him north years earlier; bitter personal experiences he could not leave behind.

Into, and out of the Restaurant come the characters who make up its regulars. All are simple yet immensely powerful representatives of lives in the neighborhood. They include the local numbers runner; an ex-con not long out of the penitentiary; a sage elder; a demented street person; a wealthy mortician; the waitress and the owner. They speak their voices; their relationships ebb, flow, ebb again…. They speak “family”, though none are related in the legal sense of that term.

Off-stage, a local prophet, laid out in a casket at the morticians funeral home, draws unseen mourners; a woman, said to be 322 years old, dispenses advice to troubled souls, as might a muse.

We sat in the front row, feet against the stage. We were in that restaurant, and within those characters lives….

It was near 20 years ago when I first saw Two Trains Running at the Penumbra, so it was a new yet old experience last night.

Though there was no way for me, a white man from a country upbringing in North Dakota, to directly identify with the experiences of those in that Pittsburgh restaurant, it was simple enough to see how lives, even of strangers, interact, come together, drift apart.

We may pretend that we can isolate ourselves from others, but we are all family in one way or another. I can only speculate about what August Wilson was saying to us through his characters. His mortician, wealthy because of others deaths, important because of his wealth, would some day die himself, unable to take his wealth along for the ride. Polar opposite, the street person with the grocery cart, obsessed with the ham he’d been promised but never received, probably was every man – each of us.

Last night, Mr. Wilson worked his magic for me once again.

We’ve come a long way since August Wilson’s Pittsburgh, 1969.

Or have we, really?

Maybe when August Wilson was writing his play in one or other restaurant back in the 1980s, he had in mind the 99% vs the 1%. Who knows?

In Two Trains Running there were demonstrators in the streets; there was no work; there was great inequality between those who have, and those who have not.

The message was, in too many ways, spoke to today.