Review: Mr. Wilson’s Train is on the Tracks

Kris Neeley

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back reporting that there were more Tennessee Williams theater festivals and events sliding in between similar Shakespeare happenings than ever before. That’s a good thing, to be sure. Yet there is no doubt Mr. August Wilson will be joining those illustrious ranks soon.

Mr. Wilson exploded onto the American theater scene with critically acclaimed plays such as Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, as well as Fences (1987 Tony Award, New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, and the Pulitzer Prize) and The Piano Lesson (1990, Pulitzer Prize). 

Mr. Wilson’s command of the black experience in twentieth-century America is second-to-none. His talent for shaping dialog is unquestioned. His characters are realistic, genuine, and thoughtfully rendered while his choice of language is exacting and considered. His plays, including this one, often deal with themes of community loyalty and commitment, to fair play and justice.

Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson’s seventh effort in his ten-part series of plays entitled The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play was first produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and later opened on Broadway in the spring of 1992 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
The play gives us a complex story based on the lives of ordinary people, a volatile turning point in American history. The location is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the racially charged world of 1969. Mr. Memphis Lee's threadbare cafe is a regular stop for neighborhood folks all trying to understand the cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s. The regulars do their best to come to an accommodation with the swirling tides of change, but not always with the results they intended. 

As the play begins, the city block on which Mr. Memphis's diner is located is due to be torn down in a city renovation project. One of Mr. Memphis’ regular customers is the rich undertaker whose business is located across the street from the diner. The undertaker urges Mr. Memphis to accept his offer to buy the cafe, but his price is unacceptable to the stoic Mr. Memphis. He’s been swindled out of property before and he’s determined to stand his ground this time and get what he thinks his property is worth. 

Another regular to the café is Sterling, a petty ex-con just out of the penitentiary with big dreams for his future. Then there’s Wolf, a bookie, a hustler (in the survival sense of the word) and a man-about-town.  He dresses to the nine’s and is equally focused on the details of his own success. 

Risa is the only female in the cast. A waitress of quiet dignity occupying the still point in this play, she has self-inflicted cuts on her legs, self-mutilation as a barrier between herself and men. Hambone is a mentally disturbed man who seeks comfort in the friendship shown him by Risa. He speaks infrequently but when he does, it’s one variation or another of the phrase, “He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham!”

The senior character in the play is Holloway. He has seen it all and his role is steady anchor, neighborhood philosopher, and ardent proponent of a legendary 322-year-old woman prophet down the street. Although never seen, she radiates a strong influence over the actions of many of the characters in the play, and serves as a reminder of the heritage of Black Americans.

With these strong roots, Mr. Wilson grows a powerful theatrical experience and a strong history lesson for those of us not witness to Black life in 1969. 

As directed by Lewis Campbell with Esperanza Catubig assisting, and rendered by the Multi Ethnic Theater Company and presented in the Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco, Two Trains Running ran 3 hours including one intermission. The running time is important, as slowness of pacing was an issue on opening night. This play requires pacing more like everyday life, with the dynamics of neighbors talking with neighbors they’ve known for years; that is to say briskly, sometimes obliquely, with awareness of personal quirks and hot buttons, and with every intent to find or deliver a message, a joke, a jab, or a cut. The actors cast in this production are certainly more than capable of doing this sort of work, but on opening night the presentation was too muted. (Note: It was extremely hot in the theater this night and I’m sure that had an impact on the actors. I know it did on the audience.)

Fabian Herd was superb as Wolf, Vernon Medearis a study in subtlety and nuance as West (the undertaker), and Stuart Elwyn Hall every bit the oracle of Black life as Holloway. All three actors demonstrated a keen ability to do what so many actors fail at: to listen to what is being said by other actors, instead of simply waiting for their turn to speak. These gentlemen delivered acting in considered gradations, rendering layered performances which would hold them in good stead with notable theaters across this country. 

The set design, that of a scruffy café so much a part of neighborhoods everywhere, was nicely done. The turquoise booths were period perfect. Unpainted plywood here-and-there emphasized  a business managed with small dollars and ‘just enough’ repairs. Set construction showed care. Making a set look down-on-its-luck without making it look slapdash is harder than one might imagine. The set designer/builders (Lewis Campbell and David Hampton) pulled it off nicely.

Props were period and detailed. Even though no one in the play ate anything which required catsup, the always ubiquitous red plastic catsup dispenser appeared one-third full. The bowl of beans eaten by Hambone were appealing, as was the coffee dispensed by Risa. 
Costumes were period and nicely selected (especially those for Wolf.) A bit more attention to fit would render some costumes perfect.

There is little doubt August Wilson has a ‘reserved seat’ in the pantheon of Greatest American Playwrights. Seeing Multi Ethnic Theater’s production of Two Trains Running shows why.

Two Trains Running continues through August 30th at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St, San Francisco, CA 94109. Discount tickets are available on Goldstar. 

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle. He is a stage director who earned an SFBATCC Best Director award (‘Lend Me a Tenor’, Ross Valley Players) in 2013, an Outstanding Production Shellie Award nomination for directing ‘A Case of Libel’ for Pittsburg Community Theater, and his direction of ‘Leading Ladies’ for Novato Theater Company was listed as one of the 10 Best Plays of 2014 in the North Bay by the Marin Independent Journal newspaper. 

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on For All Events at, at Marin Onstage at and on OnStage at