Playwright August Wilson wrote that “there are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death.”
“Each of us rides them both,” he continued. “To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone.”
And so his acclaimed play “Two Trains Running” centers on seven characters who hang out at an inner-city Pittsburgh diner. Their Hill District neighborhood is being gentrified and the diner is be demolished in the name of urban renewal.
It is 1969, and, in the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, riots in neighborhoods where there has been no economic equality and rise of the black power movement, the Hill District community and the characters are at a crossroads with some hoping to catch a train that will make a difference.
The American Stage Theatre Company continues its 10-play salute to Wilson’s impressive body work with its seventh production. It opens Friday and runs through Feb. 23 at the Raymond James Theatre, on 163 Third St. N., in St. Petersburg.
“Two Trains Running” is one of the Wilson Century Cycle plays. Each play explores the struggles of black Americans during each decade of 20th Century. It followed Wilson’s successful “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson.”
By the time Wilson died in 2005, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright had left a lasting legacy for black culture, literature and the American stage.
Directed by Bob Devlin Jones, “Two Trains Running” features Kim Sullivan as diner owner Memphis Lee; Alan Bomar Jones as Holloway, a believer in the supernatural and a link to the past; Bryant Bentley as Sterling, an ex-con and follower of the Black Panther preachings of Malcolm X; Renta Eastlick as the emotionally and physically scarred waitress Risa; one-named actor ranney as the seemingly mentally challenged Hambone (who repeats two phrases over and over); Cranstan Cumberbatch as the bookie Wolf; and Wilbert L. Williams Jr. as the prosperous undertaker West.
Devin Jones, a writer, director, actor and co-founder and artistic director of Studio@620 in St. Petersburg, says this cast has come together brilliantly. Jones has been involved in previous American Stage Productions.
“It’s a wonderful talented ensemble cast,” he says. “And this play works on so many levels.”
He adds that Wilson’s characters and his scripts have a depth and humanity that is comparable to Shakespeare’s writings about his time.
Philadelphia native Sullivan, who now lives in Brooklyn, has been in all seven of the American Stage productions of Wilson’s work.
He says he is a “Wilsonian,” the name adopted by those who share a passion for preserving and performing Wilson’s work.
Sullivan says he didn’t appreciate the first Wilson play that he saw when he was younger – “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” But later when he was cast in a production and had to “work at it from the inside,” he began to appreciate the depth of Wilson’s characters and his sense of of history in telling the story of African-Americans’ struggles.