Seattle Repertory Theatre Re-Tells the Black Experience in
Two Trains Running
August Wilson’s Two Trains Running takes place in the restaurant of Memphis Lee in 1969 in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The urban renewal project is well underway, and Memphis’ restaurant is on the chopping block for the Urban Redevelopment Authority. In the diner, we also meet Wolf, a man who runs lottery numbers for the people of the neighborhood, Risa, a young woman who works at the diner, Sterling, a young man recently released from prison, and Holloway, an old friend and regular of the diner. As the city continues to press Memphis to sell his restaurant, we follow him the other characters as the navigate through space of 1960s Pittsburgh as African-Americans.
Juliette Carrillo, the director of the Seattle Rep’s Two Trains Running, presents the black experience during the late 1960’s from the perspective of our various black characters. Rather than centering the show around the negative relationships that very likely existed between Black and white Pittsburghers, Carrillo 'explores the day-to-day struggles of Black Americans that these negative relationships produce. This distinction may seem slight, but by focusing the story on Black Pittsburghers, Wilson removes the element of interracial competition and conflict from view. In Two Trains Running, we get to see Black characters socially advance without cost to white people. Which is exciting as very rarely are audiences presented Black characters that are able to rise above their obstacles on their own ability.
Memphis’ plan throughout the play is to sell his restaurant to the city for $15,000. Even though Memphis knows the city is notorious for low-balling business owners for their property, especially black store owners, he stays true to his plan that he won’t take a penny under his asking price. Even as he is offered relatively good deals by West to purchase the restaurant himself, Memphis refuses the offer, saying he will only take $15,000. This is how Wilson creates a space for positive optimism in this period, by creating characters that are driven and hardworking, and are optimistic about the rewards they will reap in the future. A similar example can be seen with Sterling, as he continues his search for a job (and a woman) he repeats over and over that he will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. This optimism in our characters is another great and unusual feature of this piece that is not seen in many other Black historical plays. The optimism reframes the play from focusing on the disadvantageous situations our characters live in, to the drive they have to overcome these adversities.
Often, the Black experience is told as a story of heartbreak, struggle, and the eventual and miraculous achievement of Blacks. While this story holds true for many (if not all) Black people, it is not a story that audiences need to be reminded of. The retelling of the Black experience is a balancing game, because while we as a society and a performing arts community are aware of the injustices Blacks have faced, it is important that these personal stories are not painted into a gray background that can be generally titled “Bad Things Whites Did to Blacks”. Carrillo does this beautifully by highlighting the diversity in experiences possible even within a single community (Memphis vs. West). Carrillo even goes as far as to highlight the diversity of experience between Black generations; while Sterling and Risa are excited for the Malcom X birthday party/rally, Memphis becomes obviously distraught once he sees a flyer for the event posted in his restaurant. This separation of the older and younger generations and their attraction to activism also provides the audience with a more authentic presentation of the Black experience during this time. While there were many African-Americans advocating for their communities’ rights, there were still many (particularly among the older, southern African-Americans) that viewed activism as the cause of further violence between Blacks and whites. However, Wilson’s use of motifs such as the priestess character Aunt Ester whose mystical aura confounds both young and old generations alike but ability to produce drastic results unites all. Aunt Ester has served similar roles throughout Wilson’s ten-part series The Pittsburgh Cycle, in which she often represents a connection to African spirituality and history.
Aunt Ester, who we never actually get to see in this play, carries an incredible amount of importance in her community. As Holloway describes Aunt Ester and her ability to make wishes come true, you can sense a change in the mood of the room. While Holloway’s stories of Aunt Ester – a woman who is supposedly hundreds of years old – are taken with a grain of salt by the others, the possibility that Aunt Ester might be able to make wishes come true is too intriguing to ignore outright. As Holloway divulges more about the Aunt and how she saved him from his brother-in-law, the space for optimism is further developed, in which our characters start viewing their goals as possible. By doing so, Wilson empowers his characters to take action and make the changes they wish to see in their lives. This kind of optimism in Black Americans – particularly those living in the 60’s – is something we never get to see as audience member. By continuing to defy classic stereotypes of 1960’s Black Americans, Wilson continues to re-define the Black experience.
Juliette Carrillo’s presentation of Wilson’s Two Trains Running was an amazing illustration of the diverse experience of Blackness. Particularly, how the culmination of community support, self-determination, and optimism all contribute to one’s Black excellence. This show importantly highlights the achievements and positive histories that do exist in the shared Black history. As touched on previously, the presentation of these positive histories is incredibly important to the sharing of Black experience as to prevent the homogenization of the Black experience in reference to white history. The Seattle Rep’s Two Trains Running allowed for these experiences to be shared without the influence of white perspective to heavily mask their stories.
· Two Trains Running Produced by: The Seattle Repertory Theatre in Association with Arena Stage
· Two Trains Running Written by: August Wilson
· Two Trains Running Directed by: Juliette Carrillo
· Two Trains Running January 12 – February 11, 2018 performed at the Bagley Wright Theatre