Yesterday, we went to the Arena Stage to see August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running”. Gave it an A+.
August Wilson, son of a German father and African-American mother, dropped out of high school in Pittsburgh in the 10th grade. He never went back to school, but that didn’t stop him in becoming an award winning poet and playwright (two Pulitzers, for example), raking in a number of honorary degrees and teaching at a university level. So much for formal education.
Before he died at the young age of 60 from cancer, Wilson wrote a number of plays, including his ten play “Pittsburgh Cycle”, each depicting a view of African American life in Pittsburgh during a different decade of the 20th century.
“Two Trains Running” took place in the 1960s. We had seen one other play, “Jitney”, an early Wilson play that took place in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, some years ago at Studio. I remember the play, which focused on a type of shared, informal, unlicensed taxi service, called a jitney service in Pittsburgh, which served the impoverished African American community, and was about to be shut down by the authorities, threatening the community’s mobility. I remember, growing up in St. Louis, “service cars” (I don’t think anyone called them jitneys, but how was I to know), which served black neighborhoods, ran regular routes (I think), picking up and discharging passengers as they went. They were large cars, maybe older Cadillacs, limousine-like, and I can’t remember if they had any sort of logo, or of they were unmarked. I remember they were for blacks and I don’t know if any white person ever rode one (although St. Louis public transportation was not segregated), I don’t know who owned them, or if they were regulated. I do remember (probably in the 50s) when they disappeared. You just didn’t see them anymore. (I speak from memory – don’t quote me as being factual)
“Two Trains Running” isn’t about jitneys – it’s about urban renewal, and of course the 60s was the high point decade of urban renewal (as well as the time of great civil rights activity – Malcolm X is a presence in the play). Memphis Lee’s cafe (it used to be a restaurant, but they don’t have much food anymore, usually just beans and coffee, and cupcakes) is being threatened by the city. It, along with the rest of the block, is to be purchased and demolished. Big changes are afoot in this black neighborhood – already the 5 and dime has closed and the doctor has moved out. Memphis knows his days at his cafe are numbered, but he is set on one thing: he won’t accept a price from the city for less than $25,000 for his property.
Memphis has one employee, Risa, an overworked young woman letting life pass her by, subject to alternating signs of respect and disrespect from her boss and his regular customers. The customers include Wolff, a numbers runner who has his eyes on Risa but gets little response from her, and Sterling, an ambitious young man just released from the penitentiary, who believes he will strike it rich one day (even if he can’t get a job) and move to Vegas with Risa as his wife, and who idolizes Malcolm. Then there’s Hambone, a mentally disturbed and homeless man, who was promised a ham nine and a half years ago for painting a neighbor’s fence, but only given a chicken; Holloway, a 65 year old philosopher of sorts, who just wishes everyone would calm down and who thinks that Aunt Esther (a 322 year old woman who lives down the street, in the back: “just knock on the RED DOOR”) holds all the answers; and West, the prosperous local undertaker who started out life as a numbers runner, saw his friends getting killed, and realized that someone had to bury them and he might as well be the one. West is clearly very successful – he thinks Memphis should sell the cafe to him – he knows how to deal with the city.
The feel of “Two Trains Running” and of “Jitney” are similar. Fascinating characters, each with their own idiosyncrasies, each someone out of step with the prevailing white society (and they know it). The plays are filled with both pathos and humor, but they do have a dead end feel, as if everyone is trapped, as if progress (even when spoken of) is clearly illusive. Are his characters all victims of society, or are they held back because of their own limitations – not perfectly clear what Wilson is saying, perhaps. But then again, what is perfectly clear?
The play closes today after an extended run. But keep your eye out for it or any of the plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle. We are.