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Grand Idealism 

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Goodman Theatre

"I want my ham," roars Hambone, one of the characters in August Wilson's Two Trains Running. Not just once or twice but repeatedly the demented old man bellows "I want my ham," pausing slightly before "ham" to give the word maximum force.

Like the soul chants and slogans that establish the play's late-60s setting--"United we stand, divided we fall," "Say it loud--I'm black an' I'm proud"--Hambone's rhythmic refrain doesn't just drive home the speaker's individual concerns. It conveys the ethos of a whole community--the denizens of Memphis Lee's diner in the mostly black Hill District of Pittsburgh. Though their lives are less connected than those of the families who populate Wilson's earlier plays such as Fences and The Piano Lesson, the folks who hang out at Lee's diner are drawn together by the fact that each of them, so to speak, wants his or her ham.

How each of them gets it gives this lyrical comedy its focus. Their methods are sometimes militant, sometimes mercenary, sometimes mystical--which finally makes for a play that generates good feeling without being quite convincing. Close to Shakespearean or Dickensian in its broad sweep, its panoply of highly individualized characters, its rich dialogue, and its theme of spiritual transformation through a confluence of worldly and supernatural occurrences, Two Trains Running speaks of mysterious, possibly magical solutions to the problems of poverty and injustice. You might feel good when the play's over, but the problems remain.

On the surface a slice of 60s life, Two Trains Running portrays a group of average African Americans who seem only peripherally affected by the momentous events of their time. While they make occasional brief references to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Memphis Lee and his friends are more interested in gossiping about local folks--like Petey Brown, who killed his wife and best friend when he found them together in the Ellis Hotel, or Prophet Samuel, a well-heeled evangelist in the Reverend Ike mold who now lies in state at West's Funeral Home while thousands gather to gawk and mourn. ("It look like Hong Kong out there," says a numbers runner named Wolf in wonderment. "I didn't know there was that many niggers in Pittsburgh.")

But underneath the casual conversation run currents of aspiration and need--need for material reward and, more important, for the affirmation of dignity. In the case of Hambone, a raggedy old southerner, that affirmation is symbolized by a ham he was promised by a local white butcher named Lutz in payment for painting a fence. "He think he did a good job and Lutz didn't," explains Memphis, who barely tolerates the apparently crazy Hambone's presence at his counter. "That's where he went wrong--letting Lutz decide what to pay him."

Memphis doesn't intend to make the same mistake: his diner is due to be torn down as part of "urban renewal," and he's determined to get his price for the property no matter what the all-white city council says. A champion of economic empowerment--and a conservative who scorns efforts to lionize men like Malcolm X ("Niggers killed Malcolm, and now they want to celebrate his birthday," he sneers)--Memphis has a very special use in mind for the money: he plans to go back south to confront the white landowner who ran him out almost 40 years earlier.

Sterling, a newcomer to the group, is a young, impulsive, gun-toting ex-con who served time for robbery. He's got his eye on two goals: winning easy cash in Wolf's numbers game and Risa, the diner's enigmatic young waitress and cook. But the numbers racket is run by a white mobster who changes the rules when it suits him, and Risa signals her lack of interest in relationships through a nearly somnambulistic apathy and a chilling display of self-mutilation--her bare legs are covered with razor scars intended to turn off men.

Despite her alienation, Risa wants love, though she denies it. Similarly self-deluded is Holloway, the banquette philosopher whose anecdotes about the folly of human nature constitute some of the play's longest and funniest passages. "I'm 65 years old," Holloway proclaims, "and I got that way by staying out of people's business." But in fact he's deeply involved in the activity around him; it is he who steers Memphis and Sterling to the mysterious Aunt Ester, who claims to be 322 years old and who offers help for any problem. Her price is $20--not to be paid to her, but to be thrown into the river as a sign of submission to the spiritual force around and within us.

Though never seen onstage, Aunt Ester is in many ways the play's principal character: she embodies the twin legacies--the "two trains running" of the Old South and ancient Africa--with which these northern blacks must be reconciled before they can achieve their potential. She represents Wilson's belief in a larger purpose to existence--a belief whose grand idealism sets Wilson apart from almost every other playwright today. But if there's something lovely about this element in Wilson's play, there's also something irritating about it. The late 60s, for all their violence, were marked by a sense of hope; certainly in the area of political and economic equality between blacks and whites, there seemed a promise of improvement despite the turmoil of the time. Some 25 years later things have gotten worse, not better; Two Trains Running reflects the hopeful spirit of the era it depicts but doesn't address the despair of the era it was written in. We should all have an Aunt Ester, but we don't.

Still, there's no denying the satisfaction of seeing a warmly written play acted impeccably. Under Lloyd Richards's direction, this Goodman Theatre production is a casebook example of fine ensemble playing whose key is the intensity with which the actors listen--to each other and to their characters' own feelings--as well as speak. Of course, the speaking's crucial too: in the tradition of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, Wilson demands actors who can fuse naturalistic idioms with the long, luxurious phrasing of elegiac poetry. The actors in Two Trains Running find the music in Wilson's text--which derives many of its rhythms from the preacher's pulpit--as well as its surface and subtextual meanings.

Roscoe Lee Browne, as the wry commentator Holloway, anchors the show with his exquisitely textured characterization--and the juicy monologues Wilson has provided, including a hilarious anecdote about a brainwashed old black man who yearned to pick cotton on God's plantation. Paul Butler's strong stage presence and rich bass voice chart Memphis's evolution from obstinate toughness to compassion; Eriq La Salle's Sterling is full of grace and fire; Bellary Darden combines defiant grit, deadpan humor, and a strange dreaminess as Risa; and Anthony Chisholm's edgy Wolf, Lou Ferguson's obsessed Hambone, and John Beasley's mercenary mortician West keep Tony Fanning's detailed diner set teeming with life. All that's missing is Aunt Ester; she remains a fantasy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.


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