by Ann Greer
The day after the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, I was at Arena Stage watching August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” set in 1960s Pittsburgh. It is one of the works in his acclaimed ten-play cycle that chronicles the African American experience in each decade of the 20th century.
Carlton Byrd (Sterling) and Nicole Lewis (Risa)
Everyone who appreciates theater should see as many of these plays as they can, at least once. The cycle is a monumental achievement, and “Two Trains Running” is particularly meaningful in this anniversary year.
The play takes place in a diner owned by Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee), who fled the South to escape racial persecution. His diner has seen better days, customers are few, and Memphis hopes to cash in on the urban renewal taking place in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, he and sensual waitress Risa (Nicole Lewis) tend to regulars, including funeral home owner West (William Hall, Jr.), damaged Hambone (Frank Riley III), ex-con Sterling (Carlton Byrd), numbers runner Wolf (Reginald Andre Jackson), and resident philosopher Holloway (David Emerson Toney), all of whom are trying to make their way as best they can.
David Emerson Toney (Holloway) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee)
Toney, who portrayed Holloway once before, calls his character a griot, an African storyteller. One of Holloway’s gems is, ”death will find you; it’s up to you to find love.”
“In a lot of ways, Holloway is a mirror of the goodness and strength of the African American people,” Toney says. “Holloway believes we have to rely on what we already know to save ourselves. He talks about the way we should be looking at things, at history as it actually was, not what we are told.”
David Emerson Toney (Holloway), William Hall, Jr. (West) and Eugene Lee (Memphis Lee)
Toney has also played West, but believes the character of Holloway is a better fit for him.
“Holloway is more of who I am. The role is not easy, because of the weight he carries. He feels personally responsible for everyone,” he says.
Frank Riley III (Hambone) and Carlton Byrd (Sterling)
Playwright August Wilson has been called the American Shakespeare. As both an actor and a teacher (he is assistant professor of acting at Virginia Commonwealth University), Toney concurs, saying that the work of Wilson and Shakespeare share a musical language and universality of themes.
Like two trains, the denizens of Memphis’s diner are running to and from love, to and from their pasts, to and from society’s expectations, and to and from what they know to be true.
“Two Trains Running,” at Arena Stage through May 6, 2018. Tickets: arenastage.org or 202-488-3300.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography.
Ann Greer has covered culture in the DC region for The Washington Post, Capitol File magazine, and WAMU-FM, among others. She was the first online theater critic in the DC region, for AOL Digital City Washington.