August Wilson chronicled the 20th century in his “Pittsburgh Cycle” of plays with one for each decade. At present people are probably most familiar with “Fences”—a play set in the 1950s, which was recently made into a film directed by Denzel Washington. Theatre NOW brings his ‘60s play, “Two Trains Running” to life for the month of September. The play is set in 1969 at Memphis Lee’s restaurant in the Hill District of Pittsburg. The predominately African-American neighborhood is facing city driven change through imminent domain purchases of property.
Memphis Lee (Ron Dortch) is a much put-upon man. The restaurant he owns is declining in business. A numbers runner, Wolf (Ben Hart) is using his phone and place of business as a drop-off point, and the waitress/cook Risa (Joy James) never seems to please the restaurateur. As well, the city wants to force Lee out of the building. Oh! And his wife just left him. He has his friends, Holloway (Fracaswell Hyman), and to some extent Wolf and Risa. He also has a long-running love/hate relationship with Mr. West (Maxwell Paige), who has repeatedly offered to purchase Lee’s real estate. But Lee has a price in mind: $25,000, and not a penny less will he take—from West, the city or anyone else. The restaurant is important to Lee; it is more than a point of pride.
Mind you, however, it doesn’t mean he is above playing the numbers—even when he is giving Wolf a hard time about using his place for gambling. Lee is a complicated and difficult man; he has fought and worked hard all his life, but he seems incapable of extending the same respect he craves to others— especially Risa, his sole employee, whom he humiliates frequently.
Dortch doesn’t pull any punches with Lee. It could be very easy to make him into either a weasely bully who picks on those weaker than himself or into a blustering strong man who is unable to bend. Yet, Dortch makes him so flawed and strong at the same time that he is really a phenomenal interpretation of everyone who has discovered how other people get to play the game with loaded dice and a marked deck.
Into all their lives stumbles Sterling (Daniel McKinney), just released from the penitentiary. Sterling has no filter; everything he thinks comes out of his mouth. He absolutely has no ability to shield or obscure his thoughts. He is staring—moment to moment—in a film of his life, and everyone else is a supporting player. For all his immaturity, Sterling has a good heart; he just doesn’t really have the means to actualize it. Like everyman with two eyes in his head, Sterling is attracted to the gorgeous Risa. But Risa has other ideas. For all the loud proclamations of the others and arguments about tithing and money, It is Risa that always has a meal and cup of coffee for Hambone (Glenn A. Wilson).
Hambone is a little mentally challenged, but still manages to survive. He is fanatically focused on a ham that he feels he was cheated out of years before and really can not discuss any other topic. Part of what makes Wilson’s performance so convincing is, even when the others are talking and ignoring him, his lips are moving in his incessant soliloquy to the much owed and missing ham. That is actually one instance among many.
James, especially, has very few actual lines compared to the banter and speeches the men engage with. But there is not a moment she is not reacting to them. Her non-verbal communication speaks volumes, but none of the men are interested in listening. Even Wolf and Sterling, who find her attractive, are largely oblivious to much beyond her beautiful body. Which is a shame—because there are depths to Risa that could fascinate. But, for all their interest in each other, the minutia of the neighborhood, and their own sense of justice, they are largely oblivious to her as part of any of the forgoing. James is magnificent. I pined with her. I wished better for her. I lamented the life she led.
Paige’s West is truly bundled and shielded against those around him: gloves, full suit, hat, and sunglasses he wears at all times. Think about how important the eyes are for making human connection? Though Paige shuns that possibility with his cast members, the audience comes to feel real empathy for a man living in such a narrow corner. The only one onstage who doesn’t seem to pity or abhor him is Hyman’s Holloway.
In many ways, Holloway is the sanest, most put together of the bunch. Hyman cannot be onstage without the audience laughing. They laugh with and at Sterling because of his youthful antics and bravado, but Holloway is the pressure valve releasing: Just when he and everyone else are too tense to think, he manages to pull just enough humor out of the situation to keep everything from exploding. It is a remarkable coping mechanism that Holloway has probably used his whole life to defuse emotional escalation and Hyman makes it completely natural.
Director Regina McLeod has assembled an amazing cast who really hits all the notes that make up the melody of the play, along with the chords and harmony, too. It is a truly great night of theatre.
But it is also an evening of dinner. Perhaps of all August Wilson’s plays, this one was selected because it is set in Memphis Lee’s Restaurant. Chef Denise Gordon has clearly let her home-style cook out to play with the menu. A Hoppin’ John Cake starts off the meal: black eyed peas, rice and greens, shaped it into a patty, sautéed, and smothered in tomato chipotle gravy. The flavor literally explodes with each forkful. Chef Denise could freeze the patties and market them, they’re so good.
There are several options for the entree: barbeque chicken, curry vegetables, but I am here to tell you that the way to go is the “Crab and Shrimp Imperial.” The shrimp still have enough firmness but are completely soaked in the crab, lemon and butter. Essentially, the whole process is just too decadent for words. In addition it comes with green beans, macaroni and cheese and candied yams. The yams are the latest in a long line of foods that Gordon has gotten me to like. I’d like to say I have spent a life time abhorring it (pimento cheese also figured heavily in that list). She slices them instead of mushing them to hell, which has something to do with their appeal on my palate. The sugar and spices are a lovely balance of savory and sweet instead of just mouthfuls of overly sweet. Just the same, her sweet potato pie is the first one I have enjoyed in my life. It’s a great blend of creamy against a flaky crust.
Good food, good entertainment, all under one roof. Doesn’t get much better than that.