How good can chicken taste when you really wanted ham-when you've spent an exhaustive amount of energy for it? Chicken will never taste the same again: probably sour and, perhaps pridelessly cheap. Fittingly for TWO TRAINS RUNNING, ham and chicken are inherently a cultural war cry, excitedly felt at Syracuse Stage.
For playwright August Wilson, it's a cry that spans over numerous decades-a moan that any Wilsonian fan has come to recognize with a delicate, emotional reflection. TWO TRAINS RUNNING is a part of Wilson's 20th Century Cycle plays, a collection of ten plays demonstrating the African American experience throughout each decade of the 20th century, this being the seventh Wilson play presented at Syracuse Stage.
Wilson, a Pulitzer winning playwright who passed away in 2005, is accustomed to presenting passionate arias-ones that delve into a discursive, imaginative story. There's a speech for everything, a lesson to be taught to everyone, especially the young. In 1969, a time as fiery as the Black Power movement, youngsters demanded change, and so did the older men, but they slyly stay idle: simply letting their rage come to an "only with friends" boil.
Wilson's characters stodgily stay put in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, lamenting their lives and doing little about it-talking about change in the district, but showing little growth. The play, which takes place after the death of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., brazenly, indirectly touches upon the icons. Though artistic producing director Timothy Bond has nicely layered the show with snippets of Dr. King's speeches and prolific artists' songs (Ray Charles, JAmes Brown and the like), it only demonstrates further that the eruption of human change happening outside is not coming into Memphis Lee's Diner.
In Memphis' diner (an authentic, persuasive design by William Bloodgood), the quick pace settles on often talking about death and numbers. The show's livelihood relies on the rapid give-and-take between the seven-member cast, as they burst in and out of Memphis' (G. Valmont Thomas) restaurant. Usually speaking about his past, the diner has become a vacant putter ground for those who remain loyal customers. The jive Wolf (Leland Gantt) who spends his time selling numbers, the cracker-barrel Wiseman Holloway (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), who often delivers the most lingering arias; West (William Hall, Jr.) who has becomes the neighborhood's wealthiest man with his funeral home and Risa (Erika LaVonn), the two-mile-an-hour, lovely waitress.
It's a band of brothers, often telling Risa to fetch them more coffee, who discuss numbers, money, working for the white man and death so often that it's interestingly repetitive. It's not until Sterling (Robert Manning, Jr.) arrives to stir the pot- that the fragrant Black Power Movement enters vaguely into the restaurant, but is even quickly torn away. Sterling, a handsome young man who was just released from the penitentiary for robbing a bank, brings in the notion of "Black is beautiful" into the lives of the diner regulars. Yet, a symbol for odd repression, Memphis mutters, "They're trying to convince themselves."
The cast is wonderful. Thomas delivers a burning, stubborn man who is in heat over the pending sale of his restaurant, which is slated for demolition. His fierce charismatic performance is what Wilson acquires in his musical, oft long-winded text. Matched by the vehement albeit calm Razzac, who amps Holloway to a mystical prophet, the back-and-forth in the show is enlightening.
What is really interesting, however, is the trance that Risa seems to always be in. Her legs scarred by self-inflicted cut wounds, Risa moves, literally, at almost no pace at all-until Sterling confronts danger. Never really knowing why Risa cut herself (although she says she did it because she didn't want men looking at her), it's easy to make assumptions. But, it's wondering what Risa wants in life that is so mesmerizing. And LaVonn is mesmerizing. She paints a Risa that is defeated, tired, a woman who just wants to go about her own business. It's not until Sterling enters her life, that we get a glimpse of what she might want. Manning, so opposite of Risa, portrays a youth lost in the battle; his veracity might be all he has left.