Two Trains Running
“I’m going back one of these days,” says Memphis Lee in August Wilson’s lyrical comedy Two Trains Running. “All I got to do is find my way down to the train depot. They got two trains running every day.” Wilson’s 1990 play, set in 1969, takes its title from a Muddy Waters blues: “There’s two trains running. . . . One run at midnight and the other jes fo’ day.” For the playwright, the trains symbolize conflicting forces that must be reconciled. South and north, life and death, love and hate, vengeance and mercy, violence and tenderness, fear and courage–the courage to defy injustice but also to make peace with the enemy.
Wilson–who died of cancer Sunday at age 60–celebrated the black oral tradition in this and the other parts of his ten-play cycle dramatizing 20th-century African-American life. His characters speak at once to one another, to God, and to the audience, whom Wilson wanted to instruct and include in the African-American experience as he saw it. This production by Pegasus Players–the company that introduced Wilson’s work to Chicago audiences with its 1988 staging of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom–brings a muscular urgency to the text, making it both more moving and much funnier than it was in its 1993 Chicago premiere at the Goodman.
Memphis (Alfred H. Wilson), who runs a diner in Pittsburgh’s impoverished Pill Hill district, has seethed for 40 years because a white man took his property in Tennessee. Lucky to have escaped with his life, he wants to go back and reclaim his land. To raise the funds he wants to sell his restaurant to the city, which would like to demolish it as part of urban renewal. But he’s asking $25,000, much more than he’s been offered. So he continues to dish out meat loaf and collard greens while his customers sit and share stories of racial injustice and black-on-black scandals, white men who cheated them and wives who walked out on them. They speak of Malcolm X, a bold leader cut down in his prime, and Aunt Ester, a local wise woman rumored to be 322 years old. They talk of spirituality and superstition, history and legend.
The diner’s denizens include Hambone (Foster Williams Jr.), a demented old handyman obsessed with a ham owed him by a white grocer for a job he did nine years earlier; an undertaker, West (Samuel L. Brooks Jr.), who’s even wealthier than the recently deceased preacher Prophet Samuel (“More people dying than getting saved,” someone notes); the comical yet probing elderly philosopher Holloway (Daryl Satcher); the slick Wolf (Andre Teamer), who runs a numbers game for white mobsters; and Sterling (Taj McCord), a handsome ex-con who’s trying to make a fresh start. He has two goals: to collect the money owed him by two white crooks and to woo the put-upon waitress, Risa (Charlette Speigner), who’s scarred her legs with a knife to keep men away.
The action of Two Trains Running is minimal but profound: the emotional transformation Sterling and Risa undergo to find happiness together. Most other incidents take place offstage. We never see the crowds lining up for Prophet Samuel’s funeral, or Sterling’s climactic confrontation with the numbers racketeers. Like the characters onstage, we sit on the sidelines as they, a sort of Greek chorus, comment on unseen events made larger through the telling. Pegasus director Jonathan Wilson coaxes expressive performances from the cast; Speigner is eerily compelling as Risa, whose frightening anger masks a vulnerable soul. These actors understand that in Wilson’s work, as in all great drama, words are the action, and they make the most of them.
Purlie, the exuberant 1970 Broadway musical based on Ossie Davis’s 1961 play Purlie Victorious, explores the same theme as Two Trains Running but is set a bit earlier in the civil-rights era. The title character, a militant minister, decides to confront his white abuser–and like Sterling, Memphis, and Hambone, Purlie wants to regain his money and manhood, property and pride. But in contrast to the leisurely, philosophical tone of Wilson’s play, Purlie is fast paced and action packed. In the hilarious opening scene, a funeral for plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee, Purlie and his parishioners call on God to “hear just how forgivin’ his black children can be” as they joyfully sing and dance over Cotchipee’s coffin, draped with a Confederate flag.
The rest of the story is told in flashback. Purlie has returned to Georgia from the north to reclaim his church from Cotchipee, scheming to swindle him out of $500 to buy the building back. Purlie’s accomplices are his girlfriend, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins; his brother Gitlow; his Aunt Missy; and Cotchipee’s rebellious son Charlie, an aspiring protest singer. When Cotchipee tries to seduce Lutiebelle, Purlie’s plotting takes on a dangerous edge.
This rustic folk comedy tells its tall tale with a song and a smile–but the teeth behind that grin are filed to a point. Adapted from Purlie Victorious by Davis, Philip Rose, and Peter Udell and outfitted with a gospel-blues-funk score by Udell and Gary Geld, Purlie is a sometimes savage satire of old south stereotypes both black and white. Naive country gal Lutiebelle is cute as a button and dumb as a stone; Gitlow, appointed “deputy for the colored” by Cotchipee, is an Uncle Tom who never saw a problem he couldn’t run away from. (“What’s wrong with running?” he asks. “It emancipated more people than Abe Lincoln ever did!”) And Cotchipee is the quintessential plantation patriarch, one hand outstretched in “friendship” and the other firmly wrapped around a bullwhip.
In 1961 Purlie Victorious reminded audiences that slavery hadn’t died–it had merely changed from outright ownership to insidious sharecropper servitude. Still, the play’s bumptious geniality suggested optimism about the future. Nine years later, the show’s musical version was calling for “freedom and a little something left over.” A boisterous vulgarity replaces the sly subtlety of the original, and the characters have little depth–a major weakness in the romance between Purlie and Lutiebelle, whose happy ending is strangely abrupt and unsatisfying. Yet the work’s rowdiness is greatly entertaining in Purlie’s first major revival since its original Broadway run: this colorful Goodman Theatre-Pasadena Playhouse coproduction, directed by Sheldon Epps, is simultaneously playful and purposeful. The strong cast includes charismatic Jacques C. Smith as Purlie, charming Paulette Ivory as Lutiebelle, earthy E. Faye Butler as Missy, gangly Billy Gill as Charlie, Joyce “Peaches” Faison as Cotchipee’s shrewd cook, Harrison White as richly comic Gitlow, and Lyle Kanouse as Cotchipee–think Burl Ives playing Colonel Sanders.
Today Purlie’s broad caricatures might seem dated, even silly–as when Cotchipee goes on and on about how well he treats his “nigras” and “darkies” while leering at Lutiebelle and threatening Purlie with his whip. “Gone are the days,” as the lyric goes in “Old Black Joe”–gone and good riddance. Except they’re not gone. Not when someone like best-selling piety purveyor William Bennett can say, “You could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.” Purlie still has its place in our world.
Two Trains Running
WHEN: Through 10/30: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM
WHERE: Pegasus Players, Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson
WHEN: Through 10/30: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7:30 PM. Tue 10/11, 7:30 PM. Also 2 PM Sat-Sun.
WHERE: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow, Jennifer Girard.