Two Trains Running – Derby Theatre
This was a bold production for Derby Theatre to show. Two Trains Running is written by American playwright August Wilson, the sixth in his ten-part series The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play premiered on Broadway in 1993 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in 1969, in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, on one level it is about race in America at the end of a turbulent decade, characterised by the struggle for Civil Rights for the American born Afro- Caribbean community. Yet the writing transcends that. The “Two Trains Running” are life and death. It also spotlights the subjugation of women at the expense of men within the Black Power movement and the economic fragility of life on the fringes of the American capitalist dream.
The time and place have an unexpected resonance for myself, a white man in late middle age, in Derby. For as a youth I lived in America, on the Eastern Seaboard, in the late 60’s. The wonderful costume, stage set, dialogue, and sense of place transporting me back fifty years, its authenticity exact.
Director Nancy Medina, with English Touring Theatre, has a daunting challenge in presenting this story to a British audience in an accessible way – and succeeds. The play is long, the dialogue wordy, sometimes self-indulgent, but there is a towering sense of nobility and dignity which pervades the evening from a very talented cast. “You don’t do nothing but sit around and talk about what you ain’t got.” Admonishes old timer Holloway, ( Leon Herbert) which is true, but is done with some style.
The locality around the focal diner is set for demolition and redevelopment, As the community ostensibly gain Civil Rights, so their landscape is being taken away from them. Restaurant owner Memphis is holding out for a fair price for his premises, but has scant regard for the memory of Malcolm X providing much help. The post world war two optimism and economic growth seeping away before their very eyes and emptying tills.
Andrew French plays Memphis Lee with a commendable stoicism, Derek Ezenagu shines as the tortured Hamborne, desperate to claim his ham for a job he did for a white butcher, but has still not been paid for.
The play is littered with incidental detail which carries with it far greater importance. A wrecking ball hovers over the set, beautifully crafted by Frankie Bradshaw, ready to strike- everything. The only person making a steady living is West the undertaker, majestically portrayed by Geoff Aymer. Anita Joy Uwajeh is compelling as Risa the young woman self- harming to make herself unattractive to men.
It is the richness of the characters, and characterisation, which distinguishes this show. It shines a powerful light on Black History in America whilst simultaneously celebrating the resilience of the human spirit and the hope that something better is coming.