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Critical Review by Frank Rich
SOURCE: "August Wilson Reaches the '60s With Witnesses from a Distance." in The New York Times, April 14. 1992, pp. 139-40.
In the following review, Rich offers a largely favorable assessment of Two Trains Running.
In Two Trains Running, the latest chapter in his decade-by-decade chronicle of black American life in this century, August Wilson arrives at a destination that burns almost too brightly in memory to pass for history. Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson's account of the 1960's, unfurling at that moment when racial conflict and the Vietnam War were bringing the nation to the brink of self-immolation.
Yet Mr. Wilson's play, which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater, never speaks of Watts or Vietnam or a march on Washington. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is mentioned only once. The garrulous characters, the regulars at a Pittsburgh ghetto lunch counter in 1969, are witnesses to history too removed from the front lines to harbor more than the faintest fantasies of justice. They invest their hopes in playing the numbers, not in distant leaders sowing lofty dreams of change.
So determined is Two Trains Running to avoid red-letter events and larger-than-life heroes that it is easily Mr. Wilson's most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate heart of history. In place of a protagonist that a Charles Dutton or James Earl Jones might play is a gallery of ordinary people buffeted by larger forces that they can join or gingerly battle but cannot begin to promote or control. While such 60's props as a gun and cans of gasoline do appear in Two Trains Running, the evening's most violent dramatic event causes no serious injury and takes place offstage. Even so, a larger, national tragedy is spreading underfoot.
As might be expected in a work that departs from every Wilson effort except Joe Turner's Come and Gone in its experimental will to demolish the manufactured confrontations of well-made drama, Two Trains Running is not without blind alleys. And it is compromised by a somewhat bombastic production, staged by the author's longtime collaborator Lloyd Richards, that sometimes takes off running in a different direction from the writing. But the play rides high on the flavorsome talk that is a Wilson staple. The glorious storytelling serves not merely as picturesque, sometimes touching and often funny theater but as a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view to those outside it.
Much of the talk is prompted by two deaths that filter into Memphis Lee's restaurant, itself doomed to be demolished. The sole waitress, Risa (Cynthia Martells), grieves for Prophet Samuel, an evangelist whose attainments included a cache of jewelry, a white Cadillac, a harem and a huge flock that is viewing his open casket down the street. The one stranger to visit Memphis Lee's, a newly released convict named Sterling (Larry Fishburne), is latently preoccupied with the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X, not out of any deep ideological convictions but because a rally in the fallen radical's name at the local Savoy Ballroom gives him a pretext to ask Risa for a date.
Though the issue is never articulated, Mr. Wilson's characters are starting to compare the prophets who offer balms for their poverty and disenfranchisement, and no two representative prophets could be more different than Malcolm X and Samuel. But the play's real question may be, as one line poses it, "How we gonna feel good about ourselves?" The liveliest talkers in Two Trains Running are members of an older generation skeptical of all externally applied panaceas, secular and religious.
Memphis (Al White), who is negotiating a price for the city's demolition of his restaurant, is confident he can beat the white man at his own game as long as he knows the rules. To him, those who argue that "black is beautiful" sound like "they're trying to convince themselves." Holloway (Roscoe Lee Browne), a retired house painter turned cracker-barrel philosopher, is not only scathing about white men who exploit black labor but also about any effort by what he calls "niggers" to fight back. He sends anyone with a grievance to a mysterious, unseen prophet, the supposedly 322-year-old Aunt Ester, the neighborhood's subliminal repository of its buried African identity and a magical universe of faith and superstitions.
In some of the richest and most hilarious arias, the marvelously dyspeptic Mr. Browne encapsulates the whole economic history of the United States into an explosive formula and reminisces scathingly of a grandfather so enthralled by the plantation mentality he could not wait to die and pick heaven's cotton for a white God. Even nastier gallows humor is provided by West (Chuck Patterson), an undertaker whose practical view of death has made him perhaps the community's keenest social observer and certainly its wealthiest entrepreneur.
As conceived by Mr. Wilson, the monologues, musical in language and packed with thought and incident, are not digressions; they are the play's very fiber. Such plot as there is involves the fate of a symbolic mentally unbalanced man named Hambone (Sullivan Walker) who pointedly "ain't willing to accept whatever the white man throw at him" and the rising political consciousness and romantic ardor of Sterling, whose sincere efforts to cobble a post-penitentiary life and livelihood are constantly frustrated.
Along with the usual Wilson repetitions and the heavy metaphorical use of Hambone (who is a hammier version of the mentally disturbed Gabriel in Fences), the flaws of Two Trains Running include its inability to make more than a thematic conceit out of its lone woman, Risa, who enigmatically bears self-inflicted razor scars, and its failure to delve far below Sterling's surface, despite a searching performance by Mr. Fishburne. Mr. Wilson's reticence about his two youngest and most crucial characters turns up most glaringly in the pivotal but underwritten Act II scene that brings them together to the music of a previously dormant jukebox.
Mr. Fishburne, who greets each of Sterling's defeats with pride and heroic optimism, and Mr, Browne, an orator of Old Testament fire, are the jewels of the production. The rest of the cast is at most adequate, with Mr. White's ranting Memphis, whose longer soliloquies punctuate both acts, inflicting the greatest damage. The uneven casting is compounded by the harsh, bright lighting, the flatly realistic set and the slam-bang choreography of a text that needs to breathe rather than hyperventilate. Instead of looking like a production that has been polished during its long development process through the country's resident theaters, Two Trains Running sometimes seems the battered survivor of a conventionally grueling road tour.
The play fascinates anyway and makes its own chilling point. Just as this is the Wilson work in which the characters are the furthest removed from both Africa and the Old South (to which the untaken trains of the title lead), so it is also the Wilson play closest in time to our own. "You take something apart, you should know how to put it together," says Sterling early on, referring to a wristwatch he hesitates to dismantle. Rough in finish and unresolved at the final curtain, Two Trains Running captures a racially divided country as it came apart. That Mr. Wilson's history bleeds so seamlessly into the present is testimony to the fact that the bringing together of that America is a drama yet to unfold.
This section contains 1,213 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)