In 2 Trains Running, everyone comes to Memphis Lee's diner, hungry not just for beans and corn bread but for dignity.
American Stage continues its impressive series of August Wilson's Century Cycle plays with 2 Trains Running, the seventh in 10 plays set across the decades of the 20th century and tracing the history of black Americans.
This one takes place across a few days in 1969, as Memphis (Kim Sullivan) wrangles with the city over selling the business he's built over many years to make way for urban renewal. He's also wrangling with Wolf (Cranstan Cumberbatch), the slick and charming numbers runner who keeps using Memphis' pay phone to take bets, as well as swapping stories with his old friend Holloway (Alan Bomar Jones), a font of local history and lore.
Across the street, undertaker West (Wilbert Williams Jr.) is wrangling the crowds showing up to pay their respects to Prophet Samuel, a religious figure who's rumored to be laid out in a coffin full of money. On the sidewalk is the daily drama between the butcher Lutz and Hambone (Ranney), a mentally disabled man who's so obsessed with having been cheated out of his promised pay by Lutz years before that all he ever says is "I want my ham! He's going to give me my ham."
And wrangling all of them, often tartly, sometimes sweetly, is Risa (Renata Eastlick), who waits tables and cooks in the diner and shrugs off the flirtations of almost every man there. She finds it more difficult, though, to shrug off a newcomer. Sterling (Bryant Bentley), just out of the penitentiary, is bursting with big plans, excited about an upcoming rally honoring the recently assassinated Malcolm X — and determined to win Risa.
Wilson is, as always, dealing with big issues in 2 Trains Running: freedom and justice, love and loss, violence and hard-won peace. But he embodies those issues in entirely individual, believable characters, their stories cast in a balance of drama and comedy that rings of real life. His dialogue is rich and full of rhythm and beauty; it also makes frequent but appropriate use of the n-word — the characters speak it in affection, in anger, as pre-emptive strike against whites who would use it as a weapon.
Director Bob Devin Jones draws fine performances from a strong cast. Many of them have worked together in the previous Wilson plays at American Stage, and it shows, especially in the rapport between Sullivan and Alan Bomar Jones.
Some of the best bits take place on the edges of the action. Watch as Risa, exasperated with Wolf during one of his bouts of boasting, stands at the counter behind him and slyly doctors his coffee with various condiments. Or observe, in the second act, what happens when Holloway sits down in the booth usually occupied by Hambone.
The set and property design by Michael Newton-Brown and Jerid Fox capture the diner's faded warmth, and the soul music soundtrack had some opening-night audience members succumbing to the urge to sing along. Saidah Ben Judah's costume design nails late 1960s styles.
Audiences should know that 2 Trains Running runs for three hours, with an intermission. But those three hours are an entertaining and thought-provoking trip.