I am still traveling, trying to broaden my mind

Penumbra mounts "Two Trains Running" as part of this season's August Wilson tribute

TBy Beth Nawrocki The Penumbra Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” is a testament to why Penumbra is successfully celebrating its 25th anniversary. The company is dedicating this milestone year to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, and “Two Trains” is the second in the line-up of Wilson’s work.

Set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969 during a rally celebrating Malcolm X’s birthday, the play portrays characters reflecting on family, fortune and what it means to be black. Through soliloquy and matter-of-fact conversation, we learn about the deeply complicated, yet simultaneously simple lives of seven individuals with profoundly different perspectives on the black struggle. Set to the sounds of classic Motown, “Two Trains Running” is a satisfying dialectic illuminating the past and future of the black experience.

James A. Williams leads the cast with a powerful performance as Memphis Lee, owner of the diner. Lee, an embittered man, demands an inflated price from the city for his condemned building as reparation for what was stolen from him when he was younger. Lee’s defiant dialogue against the contemporary peace rallies contrasts Adolphus Ward’s practical and positive Halloway.

Penumbra veteran Marie-Francoise Theodre confidently plays Risa. Melancholy and untrusting of men, Risa purposely scars her legs to avoid men who see her only for her body. The man who sees beyond the scars is Sterling, played by Kevin D. West. West’s portrayal of ex-con Sterling is flawless. The energy and humor he conveys on stage makes Sterling a loveable character. Hambone, played by James Craven, provides depth as a man pushed past his mental limits. A white butcher had cheated Hambone nine years earlier by “rewarding” him with a chicken, rather than the promised ham, for painting the butcher’s fence. Hambone makes his presence known by periodically shouting, “I want my ham!” His mantra is a metaphoric response to the deprivation historically experienced by black men.

The chemistry among the cast members overcomes moments throughout the play that are verbose and tedious. Further development of Risa’s character would have enhanced the play. As the only woman, she could have raised issues beyond racism, such as sexism and the specific roles women played in the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, Aunt Esther, a 322-year-old spiritual healer whom Halloway is constantly recommending everyone go see, carries a strong female presence.

The strength of Wilson’s imagery carries the audience from individual narratives to the larger issue of civil rights. Director Lou Bellamy credits the cast: “They personify what it means to do ensemble theater, and that’s the type of theater we excel at here at the Penumbra. They’re giving some of the most exciting performances I’ve seen in a long time.”

The cast successfully creates an atmosphere that blends the simplicity of an urban diner with the complexity of the subject matter discussed inside it. If this is what Penumbra audiences can expect from future August Wilson productions, it is going to be a very pleasing 25th anniversary year.

“Two Trains Running” plays through March 9 at Penumbra Theatre,(651) 224-3180.

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