Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Two Trains Running shows the costs and conflict of racist planning policies from a profoundly human perspective.
By the time urban renewal arrived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Memphis Lee’s diner was already done for. The jukebox didn’t work. The daily meatloaf special was almost never actually available. A local hang-about named Wolf made more money running numbers at the diner than Memphis did selling beans and cornbread.
Still, Memphis refused to be pushed out. It didn’t matter that Risa hardly ever bothered to cook the chicken, since nobody ever showed up to order any. Memphis demands that the city give him what he feels is his due—though the city might say it owed him nothing.
This is the intimate scale of urban renewal captured in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. The play, which opened in April at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, is set in 1969, a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that consumed Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
The narrow lens is one of the play’s surprises: It examines the titanic forces of urban renewal via a single establishment, never leaving the checkerboard-tiled stage of Memphis’s diner. For a play about sweeping change, what emerges is a slow portrait, one that tries to convince you that everything depends on the fate of this single black-owned soul-food cafe in Pittsburgh. The world seems only as large as the stories of the people who float through Memphis’s doors.
Another surprise in Two Trains Running is how far the play’s fears still echo today, some 50 years after the events depicted (and nearly 30 years since its debut). Every character frets over dignity and money. The terrible exchange rate between these currencies is the worry underscoring every conversation. Two Trains Running looks at how power—taking the form of planning committees and urban authorities—shapes everyday lives, then as now.
The small but searing tragedy of Two Trains Running centers around the story of Hambone, a mentally disabled man played to devastating effect by Frank Riley III. Hambone has few lines—really, just a single sad catchphrase that he utters every morning when he walks into the diner. He wants the ham he is owed by a Jewish grocer who hired him for a paint job a decade ago. Hence the nickname, Hambone (“I want my ham”). Disheveled, confused, heartbroken, Hambone stands in for the most vulnerable people subjected to poverty and discrimination. Like Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men, Hambone draws out both the predatory and protective instincts of the people around him.
In this play, his caretakers are Risa (played by Nicole Lewis), the waitress who insists that Hambone eats for free at Memphis’s (to the grouchy diner owner’s chagrin); and Sterling (Carlton Byrd), a proud ex-convict and Risa’s would-be suitor. Sterling is a radical, his Stokely Carmichael worldview forged by his brush with mass incarceration, and he tries to woo Risa by inviting her to a demonstration. Sterling never explicitly calls it a Black Panther rally, but that’s the suggestion. If anything, though, Risa is more impressed by the gentleness that Sterling shows when he teaches Hambone a simple refrain: “Black is beautiful.”
Memphis, a crusty misanthrope with a gooey center (played by Eugene Lee), isn’t having any of Sterling’s black-power talk. He’s working within the system, even going so far as to hire a white lawyer to make his case before the urban renewal authority. The entire drama seems to hang on whether Memphis gets his way, right until the end.
When Hambone dies suddenly (partway through the play), Risa makes her stand: She refuses to see him buried in a welfare casket. Hambone never gets his ham, of course. His defeat, after years of crying out desperately for relief, casts a shadow on Memphis’s legitimate campaign for restitution with the urban authority. Given the indignity that Hambone suffered, could even a victory for Memphis be considered justice? An answer comes in the form of a shocking (yet satisfying) ending that upends everything.
Death hovers over everyone in Two Trains Running. Death lives across the street from the diner, at the funeral parlor, whose suave director, West (William Hall Jr.), is cynical and world-wise. Death is all the gossip: The diners say that Prophet Samuel, whose funeral viewing takes place at West’s parlor, is buried with untold riches. Death and debt are linked. A fabled neighborhood sage named Aunt Esther, unseen but known to all as the Hill’s own oracle, tells her petitioners to cast a $20 bill into the river as the price to hear her wisdom; she is rumored to be 349 years old.
Such a mythical life-span would place Aunt Esther at the time the first Africans arrived as slaves in America. Wilson’s 10-play “Century Cycle,” each one covering a decade of African American history in the 20th century—most of them set in Pittsburgh—shows the compounding legacy of that original sin. Maybe the greatest touches in director Juliette Carrillo’s interpretation are the balletic solo vignettes between scenes: for example, when West, standing under a spotlight, examines and removes his black gloves as a silent soliloquy. Every gesture reclaims something lost.