In his preface to Three Plays, Thornton Wilder says that his great drama Our Town was “an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” I think August Wilson must have had the same intention for daily African-American life when he wrote 2 Trains Running, the brilliant, radiant drama currently being presented by American Stage.
Yes, this installment in Wilson’s Century Cycle is set in the 1960s and references, however briefly, the black power movement and Malcolm X. But more often, it wants us to be dazzled by nothing more than the humanity of its seven characters, whose striving for love and financial security is both commonplace and miraculous, routine and wonderful. If art exists, then 2 Trains is art: beautiful and resonant beyond any paraphrasable meaning. It’s also, in its guarded way, hopeful; which makes it all the more urgent that you add it to your busy schedule.
The play offers a few, not terribly central, plots. There’s the story of Memphis, whose diner is about to be destroyed by the city of Pittsburgh and who insists that his recompense be commensurate with the building’s true worth. There’s the tale of young Sterling, recently released from the penitentiary and determined to romance the self-lacerating waitress Risa, in spite of her distrust of all men. And there’s the plight of brain-damaged Hambone, who, years after he was cheated of it, daily demands a ham from the employer who once promised it.
There are also important characters who only figure tangentially in these plots: Wolf, the neighborhood numbers runner, Holloway, the resident wise man, and West, the local undertaker, in charge of the funeral of a local preacher named Prophet Samuel. As these seven meet in various configurations in the soon-to-be-demolished diner (finely rendered by Michael Newton-Brown), we come to know and understand them, to share their aspirations, disappointments, and victories. By the time the play ends, they’ve become as real to us as the spectators beside us.
Or perhaps more real; if we showed every human being the respect Wilson generates for these strivers, there’d be no conflict in the world and attorneys everywhere would be out of work. Consider Memphis: as played by the amazing Kim Sullivan, he’s a demanding businessman, an indefatigable justice-seeker, a fast-talking local hero who also can be unreasonable and short-tempered. When Sterling puts a poster up in the diner advertising a political rally, Memphis pulls it down, and when Risa seems a little too interested in one of her customers, he makes sure that her attentions are directed to the sugar dispensers. Sullivan shows us Memphis’ strengths and flaws as a Rembrandt might: without judgment, without irony, with only a microscopic attention to detail. And the result is, we come away from the character with a kind of awe, thinking, yes, there are such people, and yes, they are remarkable.
The other personages, also lovingly directed by Bob Devin Jones, are just as arresting. Bryant Bentley as Sterling is no crime show bank robber; instead, he’s a feeling, complex man who made a bad choice and who paid for it, and now wants nothing more than to love Risa and quickly find some income. As Risa, Renata Eastlick is a melancholy figure, one who cuts herself in an effort not to become some man’s sex object. She’s too complex to be easily summed up, though; however she masks it, she’s still barely capable of imagining happiness and reaching out for it. Alan Bomar Jones as Holloway is the diner’s intellectual and moral center, and Cranstan Cumberbatch as Wolf is a minor criminal whose bosses sometimes put him in more danger than he ever dreamed of. Wilbert L. Williams Jr. as West is a capitalist undertaker with a small soft spot — if anyone can find it — and “ranney” as Hambone isn’t so impaired that he can’t remember what’s rightfully his. All the characters are eloquently costumed by Saidah Ben Judah, and the notable sound design, by Karla Hartley, features hits by James Brown and Diana Ross and the Supremes, among others.
The play is long – almost three hours – but Wilson uses each moment potently, and you can’t help but feel privileged to be an onlooker at whatever length. If you believe in art – that it can redeem life, validate it, vindicate it — try this splendid drama. And understand who August Wilson was; and why it looks like he’ll always matter.