Chicago Theatre Review
A Masterpiece Presented Gloriously
Two Trains Running – Goodman Theatre
The late playwright, August Wilson, was a literary genius and a true American treasure. His Century Cycle (or Pittsburgh Cycle, as it’s often called) are mostly all set in Pennsylvania and in a different decade within the 20th century. The playwright’s overriding intention was to show how the Black experience has changed and evolved from 1900 through 1990. Wilson’s aim was to capture the musically poetic language spoken by African-Americans and to raise the consciousness of all people with his historically-based series of plays. This particular work, set in the tumultuous 1960’s, examines a number of components of African-American life. Rather than dwelling on the political and social unrest of that era, Wilson focuses instead on the inhabitants of a small diner, situated in the once-prosperous urban Hill District neighborhood, undergoing change as a result of Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.
In one of the playwright’s most powerful and personal plays, Memphis is clinging on to his failing restaurant, a once popular establishment known for its fine home cooking. The city wants to buy out all the businesses along this street for a mere pittance, in order to tear down the buildings in the name of urban renewal. Memphis refuses to sell his diner for a paltry $15,000. He says if he doesn’t get the $25,000 he’s asking for “they’ll have to carry him out feet first.” Memphis dreams of having the money necessary to return to Jackson, Mississippi in order to buy back his beloved farm he was once forced to sell. Like Hambone, the elderly neighborhood handyman, whose battle cry “He gonna give me my ham” is his demand for what’s owed him for work he performed, Memphis tells everyone, “They don’t know, but I got a clause of my own.” This is his unyielding ultimatum for some dignity and respect from a city that doesn’t care any more about its people.
Chuck Smith has directed this revival of August Wilson’s drama with a firm hand. He allows his excellent cast to bask in the cadence and rhythms of the African-American speech, to easily mine all the humor present in Wilson’s dialogue and to create bold, strong characters whose daily choices make them as real as your next-door neighbor. Linda Buchanan’s gorgeous, meticulously detailed set is splendid and period-perfect. From every seat in the house audiences can not only view everything happening in the dining area, but they’re able to catch glimpses inside the kitchen and out on the street. Through its towering windows we can see piles of rubbish, neon signs and a no-man’s land where the sidewalk ends. The sound design created by Joshua Horvath and Ray Nardelli nicely captures the time period. Pre-show, intermission and post-show music all help create the Black experience in a spell of finger-snapping R&B delights.
Once again, this cast is perfection. Terry Bellamy commands the stage as Memphis. This gentleman is pure class and his resonant voice both bellows out his character’s anguish and whispers his indignation and dreams. In is certain to be an award-winning performance, Mr. Bellamy is magical. But he’s supported by a number of actors who bring their own honesty to this production. Chester Gregory returns to the Goodman from Broadway, a star in musicals like “Sister Act,” “Tarzan” and “Hairspray,” as well as his Jeff Awarded, record-breaking performance in Chicago’s “The Jackie Wilson Story.” Mr. Gregory’s portrayal of Sterling, the jobless, local young man returning home from prison to start over again, is stellar. His energy, his sexiness and his drive to both succeed at life and win the girl are thrilling. Nambi E. Kelley is excellent as Risa, the diner’s only employee. Living life at her own, relaxed tempo, Risa lets the world and its problems roll off her back like water off a duck. Neither Memphis’ demands and admonishments, nor Sterling’s attentions, nor Hambone’s demands for payment break her stride; Risa marches to her own, gentle drummer, with grace and determination.
West, A.C. Smith’s funeral home director, keeps to himself with business-like dignity and intention. He regularly patronizes Memphis’ restaurant but only involves himself in the lives of the others when it personally affects him or his business. Alfred H. Wilson is steady and resolved as Holloway, Memphis’ friend and a man who spends his days in the diner reading, drinking coffee and playing the numbers, ever hopeful of winning the big money. His mature commentary and honest advice is certain and kindly. Ernest Perry, Jr. plays Hambone with humor and a sad dignity. He becomes the symbol of the changing neighborhood with its steady decline and destruction. Anthony Irons’s Wolf is the neighborhood’s shrewd, strongest survivor, a young man who earns his cash as a numbers runner, and who has a connection to everyone in Pittsburgh. His relationship with Sterling is challenging but always respectful, as he is with everyone at the diner. With all the changes in this neighborhood, Wolf may need to rethink his position or, at the very least, his location, but there’s no doubt he’s the only one capable of adapting with ease.
This exciting revival, produced by the theatre that first staged the entire Century Cycle, is a stunning production of a masterpiece. It’s gloriously presented with humor and dignity, once again reminding audiences why August Wilson is considered one of the nation’s finest, most intelligent and accessible playwrights. As part of Chicago’s celebration in commemorating this playwright’s genius, not only is the Goodman offering this fully produced production, but all ten of Wilson’s plays are receiving staged readings throughout the city in March and April. Information can be found in the show’s playbill and on the Goodman website. But to fully understand and appreciate the power and humanity of August Wilson’s plays, this is the must-see production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 7-April 12 by the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/TwoTrains.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.