August Wilson is one of America's great playwrights. His rage, his humor and his humanity find their deepest expression in the construction of character; plot is not the point. Yet each of his plays tells a compelling story, and each story moves us because it strikes home as true and real--the way life actually happens.
Poet that he is, Wilson is engaged in illuminating the black experience of the twentieth century through a series of plays, each representing a specific decade. The one dedicated to the 1960s, Two Trains Running, is now at the Denver Center; while not his greatest work to date, it offers excellent writing and terrific performances.
The action takes place in a small cafe in Pittsburgh. The run-down restaurant still serves a few regulars, but the neighborhood is in rapid decline, and the menu has become very abbreviated indeed. Memphis owns the place; Risa waits tables, does all the cooking and washes dishes while Memphis barks orders in a continual bad temper. As for the customers, Wolf runs his numbers from the cafe's pay phone, Holloway drinks coffee and comments on history, and West is the one successful businessman in the area: He's an undertaker, and people keep dying.
Into this lively little micro-community wanders Sterling, recently released from the penitentiary, looking for work and desperately in need of a life. His mercurial disposition is capable of anger, but his soul is strikingly pure. He will find his redemption in love and in action when he defends the pivotal character of the play, a man who has lost his wits and says little more than "I want my ham."
The other characters don't know the poor, demented man's real name, so they call him Hambone. Hambone's position in the play seems peripheral at first, as if he might be there just to contribute to the atmosphere of urban decay. But by the end of the play, we come to realize--through slow, subtle revelation--how central he is. And here is where Wilson's writing is most amazing: He rivets your attention to the troubled lives of the people around Hambone, then ends by revealing the underlying sorrow of those lives though this virtually inarticulate character. Each of the characters knows the inside-out of injustice. But Hambone has been driven out of his senses by it.
The way each of the characters treats Hambone tells us volumes about them. Risa secretly gives him second helpings and extra corn muffins, smiles tenderly at him, buys him a jacket and treats him like an honored guest every time he comes in. (Everyone else she treats with laconic disdain.) Memphis barks at Hambone, though even he has a soft place in his heart for the poor soul. Wolf and Holloway are kindly but distant. Only Sterling, the young man just beginning to wake up to the world around him, turns Hambone's seemingly inane plea for his rights--based, we learn, on an ill-fated encounter with a white merchant--into a chant for justice.
Keith L. Hatten skillfully combines humor and pathos as Hambone--he doesn't need much dialogue to build his character, because it is all there in his body language and expressive features. Tracey Copeland plays Risa, a complicated woman who has scarred her legs in angry defiance of the way men have used her. In Copeland's portrayal, tenderness, hunger for affection, and rage spring out of her in layers.
Jason Bernard gives Holloway intellectual depth and spirit. Thomas Martell Brimm as Wolf and William Jay Marshall as West give well-honed, intelligent performances. And Gary Yates as Sterling and Charles Weldon as Memphis balance each other's emotional power in memorable performances that anchor the play's benevolent message.
Director Israel Hicks builds nuances into the production, underscoring the humane impulses of the writing with restrained, tactical humor, lively stage movement and a classy handling of acting talent. The result: yet another piece of wonderful ensemble craftsmanship from one of the Denver Center's most gifted directors.
The great thing Wilson does for his audience is remind us that social crises are finally a crisis of human dignity. Politics and economics matter especially when they affect justice. The denigration of the human spirit is ultimately murderous--and we all pay for it.
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