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August Wilson's latest fails to meet expectations


Written by August Wilson.

Directed by Lloyd Richards.

Starring Al White, Ella Joyce, Jonathan Earl Peck, and Ed Hall.

At the Huntington Theatre.

Oct. 26 to Nov. 25.



AUGUST WILSON'S Two Trains Running is at the Huntington Theatre in preparation for its opening on Broadway. Wilson's past achievements, which include a Tony Award, two Pulitzer Prizes, and several New York Drama Critics Circle awards, raise one's expectations to a peak which his most recent play cannot reach. Trains is a disappointment.

Trains is the third play in Wilson's decade-by-decade exploration of the African-American experience. It takes place in Pittsburgh in 1969 at a greasy spoon owned by Memphis (Al White), the central character of the play. The rest of the characters include Risa (Ella Joyce), the restaurant's waitress and cook, several regulars to the restaurant, and a young man, Sterling (Jonathan Earl Peck), who has just been released from jail. The play documents the interaction of these seven people as they come and go during the period of a week.

The theme of the play is summed up by one of Memphis' lines: "If you drop the ball, you got to go back and pick it up." Memphis "dropped the ball" almost 40 years earlier when he was run off his property in Mississippi by a group of white men. He is given a chance to "pick it up" at the end of the play by what amounts to luck, rather than any effort on his part.

Hambone (Sullivan Walker) has been struggling to pick up the ball for nine and a half years. Hambone was promised a ham in exchange for painting the fence of a white meat-shop owner. He was given a chicken instead, but refused to accept it. Every morning since then he has appeared at the owner's doorstep to shout, "I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham." Unfortunately, this has resulted in a deterioration of Hambone's mental condition to the point that the only thing he says anymore is "I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham."

The contrast between Memphis and Hambone undermines the theme of the play. It seems to imply that a long, arduous struggle for one's rights will only result in mental deterioration, and that the best thing to do is to wait around until a fortuitous opportunity for justice presents itself.

Sterling represents a young person actively involved in the civil rights movement. His attitude reflects that of Malcolm X rather than Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, his character is not very well-developed, and there is little substance to back his passion. The actor playing Sterling is given the opportunity to shout the phrase "Black is beautiful," but the motivation for his actions is absent. With more development, Sterling would be an important representation of the sometimes violent spirit of the civil rights movement.

Risa is the only female character who appears on stage. It is unfortunate that Wilson does not depict her as being involved in either the civil rights or the women's movements. This is not to say that all young women of color were involved in either or both movements -- however, Wilson missed an opportunity to explore the unique problems a woman experiences when she must confront both racism and sexism, and often must give up one cause to support the other.

How Wilson does choose to depict Risa is rather disturbing. She uses self-mutilation as a tool to fend off men: each of her legs is badly scarred from self-inflicted knife wounds. As one character says, "Who wants a woman who sliced up her legs? What'll she do to me?" Her ploy seems to be effective, because men have been avoiding her. Wilson never explores the self-destructive and unbalanced nature of her personality that the scars represent. Nor does he explain why, after doing something so violent to herself, she allows Sterling to win her affection with seemingly little effort.

One character which is both well-developed and well-acted is Holloway (Ed Hall), the eldest regular of the restaurant. Holloway acts as a spiritual advisor of sorts; he recommends that his friends take their problems to Aunt Esther, a 322-year-old spiritual healer. Holloway's monologues are the richest and most diverse, and the introduction of an aged physicality by Hall makes Holloway the most interesting character to watch and enjoy.

Many moments of the play show the inspiration and talent that have won Wilson so many awards. Unfortunately, the dialogue is sometimes ponderous, as he favors long monologues rather than a more realistic exchange of lines. This style would be more effective if the actors were more comfortable with their lines. However, after a week of shows many mistakes were being made, and efforts to recover lost lines were very obvious. One possible explanation for this is that Wilson is still rewriting sections of dialogue, and the actors are going onstage every evening with different pieces to try out.

Two Trains Running deals with a crucial moment in the history of the United States, and Wilson has established a very solid framework. Hopefully, the play will continue to grow and emerge onto Broadway as the powerful piece it should be.