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'Two Trains' On Track

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Counter-intelligence: Wolf (James Tyrone Wallace II) discourses about life to captive waitress Risa (Andrea Brembry) in "Two Trains Running"

TheatreWorks engineers a powerful production of August Wilson's cvil rights-era drama

By Anne Gelhaus

August Wilson's 1992 play Two Trains Running is, in effect, a kinder, gentler version of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. Both address racial tension between blacks and whites in the inner city and the violence that can accompany it, but in the play, these social ills are heard and not seen.

Two Trains Running (part of Wilson's decade-by-decade cycle of plays about the African American experience) is set in 1969 in a Pittsburgh diner that has become an oasis on sorts. Regulars come in to discuss what they see and experience on the streets, but the danger and oppression they talk about lurks just outside. Inside the restaurant, customers find a certain dignity and sense of purpose.

The cast of TheatreWorks' current production creates a well-realized, if insular, environment that allows the audience to connect the characters. Wilson has created a compelling story line for each individual, and the fact that most of the stories have happy endings doesn't seem contrived. On the contrary, their successes are representative of African Americans who broke through the color line during the civil rights movement.

Even a character like (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), the diner owner who treats his lone waitress, Risa (Andrea Brembry), as a personal servant, redeems himself through his fight to get the city to pay him what he wants for his building, which is due to be demolished. Memphis plans to use the money to return to Mississippi and confront the white man who ran him off his land decades ago. Memphis' story is at once heartrending and uplifting, as is Abdul-Rashid's reading of it.

Michael McFall plays the key role of Sterling, an ex-con whose anger at not being able to get a leg up in the world is tempered by a youthful exuberance. It's the latter quality that allows Sterling to woo Risa, a beautiful young woman who has scarred her legs to keep away men who want her for her body alone. Brembry's Risa is world-weary in the extreme; she communicates mostly through sighs and piercing glances at whoever is yanking her chain at the moment.

Sterling and Risa's love story is tender, but McFall is even better when his character befriends Hambone (Don C. Coles), a homeless man. Cheated out of a ham by a white butcher whose fence he painted, Hambone has spent the last nine years trying to collect his payment. His vocabulary has been reduced to a single sentence--"I want my ham!"--and the scenes in which Sterling helps him increase it to include statements like "Black is beautiful" are extremely powerful. The pride that keeps Hambone in the struggle is the most telling glimpse Wilson's play offers into the shift from civil rights to Black Power.


Two Trains Running plays Tuesday at 7:30pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, Sunday (March 17, 24 and 31) at 7pm and Sunday (April 7) at 2pm through April 7 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $18-$26. (415/903-6000)

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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