August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” at Seattle Rep covers timely themes

Eugene Lee (Memphis), Nicole Lewis (Risa), and David Emerson Toney
(Holloway) in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Two
Trains Running. (Photo by Nate Watters.)

August Wilson’s play “Two Trains Running” takes place in 1969 on the heels of the civil rights movement, but the production currently running at Seattle Repertory Theater couldn’t be more timely.

“Freedom is heavy,” says Memphis, the main character played by actor Eugene Lee. “You got to put your shoulder into freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back hold up.”

Memphis faces the pressures of the city wanting to tear his restaurant down and an undertaker, West played by William Hall, Jr., who hopes to buy his land. However, out of a desire for self-respect and a sense of freedom, Memphis refuses to sell for less than $25,000. Other characters include Wolf, who handles money for betting parlors; Hambone, who can only repeat certain phrases in his questionable mental state; Sterling, a man fresh out of jail who wants wealth and a woman; and Risa, a young woman who scarred her legs in an attempt to distract from her beauty.

The play “resonates profoundly with contemporary debates about gentrification, urban development, and the possibilities for and the road blocks to economic uplift,” writes Georgetown University professor Soyica Diggs Colbert, who specializes in African American studies and theatre and performance studies.

August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” is the seventh in his collection of ten plays that center on the African-American experience. Wilson wrote the play in 1990, and the show featured actors Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne as part of the 1992 Broadway cast.

The collection is known either as the Pittsburgh Cycle or as the Century Cycle. Each play takes place in a different decade, from the 1900s through the 1990s.

“As audiences will find from seeing this important production, although the work was first performed in 1990, the issues, ideas, and certainly relationships vibrantly resonate today and with this specific rendering,” Kristin Leahey, Seattle Rep’s literary director, told the Globalist in an email.

“My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal,” Wilson said in a 1996 interview with PBS. The ten plays in the Century Cycle follow the themes of race, oppression, and identity in an increasingly modern world, which still struggles with the same issues from before the Civil Rights.

Audiences say the themes resonate today.

“It brought home to me that; in general, we tend to think many advances have been made in terms of discrimination against persons of color, the female gender, different religions and ethnicities. And, pat ourselves on the back for being so open,” said audience member Gary Sogn in a comment left on Seattle Rep’s website. “But, really, not that much has changed where it really matters; respect of individual persons, equal opportunity for all, and ‘The Golden Rule’… treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”

Wilson, who was originally from Pittsburgh, moved to Seattle while writing his cycle of plays and was able to work with Seattle Rep. Seattle Rep has performed the entire cycle and is also one of the only theaters nationwide to cover Wilson’s entire repertoire.

The Seattle Repertory Theatre will be performing “Two Trains Running” through Feb. 11 at the Bagley Wright Theatre.

Coming up at Seattle Rep

Other SRT productions this season will include “Ibsen in Chicago,” a play focusing on Scandinavian immigrants and their range of discord, “The Great Leap,” a play about the Communist Cultural Revolution in China circa 1971 compared with a 1989 San Francisco facing its own revolution, and “Familiar,” a play revealing the dynamics and complexities of a first-generation Zimbabwean American family.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated a plot point. The undertaker was interested in buying the restaurant. This has been corrected in this version.