'Two Trains Running' confronts Civil Rights at Syracuse Stage

Sterling (Robert Manning, Jr.),  Memphis (G. Valmont Thomas) and Holloway (Abdul Salaam El Razzac) in Syracuse Stage's 'Two Trains Running.'Photo: Michael Davis Two Trains Running Who Syracuse Stage Where 820 E. Genesee St, Syracuse When Through Feb. 17 Tickets $30-54; 18 and under, $20 Review by Christina Riley

“There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both.” These forebodingly heavy words set the premise for August Wilson’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning, Two Trains Running which opened this weekend at Syracuse Stage.

This plays marks the seventhWilson play produced at Syracuse Stage and the third directed by the Stage’s own Producing Artistic Director Timothy Bond.

Motown sounds of the ‘60s and a Pittsburgh diner immediately thrusts the audience into the setting of Two Trains Running, one of Wilson’s more politically charged and humorous works out of his 10 Century Cycle plays.

Wilson depicts life for seven compelling characters that represent nuanced aspects of the African American identity. With the Civil Rights movement as a character itself—a character in the play—Wilson explores how this time period affects the characters’ lives through socially conscious speech. Like most of Wilson’s works, his text can be directorially interpreted and delivered as either humorous or serious. Bond strikes an admirable balance between the two sentiments in this production. His calculated staging also lends to the well-timed exchanges and bolsters the juxtaposition not only between the physicality of characters but their beliefs as well.

Memphis, owner of Memphis Lee’s diner is played by G. Valmont Thomas, is facing the closure and demolition of his establishment and fights the city to pay him the full worth of his property. Faithfully manning his counter and kitchen is Risa (Erika LaVonn), a cynical and quiet woman who has carved her own sense of womanhood (almost literally) by quietly asserting her independence devoid of men and make-up. Holloway (Abdul Salaam El Razzac) a wise, old

Sterling (Robert Manning, Jr.) tires to woo the comely Risa (Erika LaVonn).Photo: Michael Davis

derelict with a proclivity for hard-hitting speeches and a slick, dubious gambler—Wolf (LeLand Gantt) complete this scene. In walks Sterling (Robert Manning, Jr.), just released from prison, with a new lease on life that he wants to make the best of but doesn’t quite know how. These intercepting lives come together to give us insightful peeks into significant moments of the political and social turmoil of the ‘60s.

Wilson’s prolific storytelling is brought to life by the talented cast. Bond carefully cast the play of nationally acclaimed actors known for their performances of Wilson’s work.  Each actor effectively delivered the dense, passionately charged and masterfully crafted monologues signature of a Wilsonian work and gave effortless performances.

While no single portrayal merited a standing ovation, perfectly executed delivery from the cast coupled with Wilson’s ingenious wordplay successfully carry the production. The audience feels the weight of the Civil Rights movement through Wilson’s cleverly communicated metaphors and honest commentary. From the repetitive, striking utterances of Hambone (Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.), a slightly addled, yet emotionally compelling character to Memphis’ final moments of enlightenment, this literary masterpiece raptures the audience on script alone, and is further enriched by the actors’ performances.

Two Trains Running is a quality production that serves as another testament to the professional theater produced at Syracuse Stage.