Standing on the Rails

by guest reviewer Richard Thompson

Cedric Mays as Sterling. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Cedric Mays as Sterling. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

With righteous fury and inconsolable indignation buried down in his eyes, a nigga stood on stage. And where the world heard a question tear out this man’s mouth, my eyes welled and I cried deep from the combustible power before me, because I knew then what playwright August Wilson is trying to tell the audience from the very beginning, with the most magically absurd testament to the importance of acknowledging the needs, expectations, and humanity of a person: “Where’s my ham?”

Two Trains Running, masterfully directed by Lou Bellamy at Arizona Theater Company, is the kind of story that you hear from your pops when he wants to remind you how bad he used to be way back when, or how Aunt Lulu May wouldn’t take no excuse to acting a fool, especially ’cause you living with her now ’cause mom stopped coming home. It is a story of invisible peoples’ struggles and triumphs, of life. Just life. Two Trains Running barrels down the narrow tunnel from the past on to the future, and the audience is standing right on the rails. Yet, Wilson nurtured a luminosity in this play by allowing the audience to see life from the eyes of a nigga. When it comes to the inherent and critical necessity of owning one’s own identity – of knowing who you are and where you come from – it’s vital to know that a nigga isn’t what you think it is.

I promise, it’s all good. It’s good because this is a story about niggas, niggahs, niggas, nyaggas, and NI-GGAHHS. Did that sentence make you uncomfortable? It’s all good, there wasn’t one bad word in that sentence; you’re confusing it with another, completely different word – the one we all undeniably know, so for the sake of this discussion – and to make sure you all feel cool and chill despite being unsure on proper cultural protocol, I give you permission to mentally say the above term for as long as it takes you to read this article – it’s okay, I made sure it cool at the last meeting. But only for this article.

Set during a time of civil unrest, social awakening, and reclamation of identity, Wilson introduces us to men and women who could easily slip right into our shoes and we wouldn’t know the difference. Men and women who struggle all day to be seen as who they are, especially when the terms that identify them are only arbitrarily scary or undefinable to others who are afraid to see the beauty in it. Men and women who proudly identify as niggas in such a simply dignified manner, that today’s audience before them, filled with hues ranging from apricot to midnight, understood exactly what was being said: brother, sister, baby, muthafuka, fam. And no one had to explain why.
August Wilson gave the audience even more than they would recognize. A word now infused with such fluidity; and power; and comradery; and inherent understanding. This is a word that transcends time now. It is the original “I am Spartacus” (or for the cool kids: “I am Groot”). The undeniable affirmation of worth that a people considered disposable can take a word that was borne from the putrid places rooted in fear and remold, remake, and reinstitute that phrase; instead claiming it completely – history and all – owning who we are and who we can be.

His work, so relevant today as it was 60 years ago, places front and center the cold realities that one’s own definition is always being defined by others and – as Sterling, played effortlessly by Cedric Mays, so exuberantly expressed while resting easy on the bar bench waiting for a particular waitress – that the notion ‘Black is Beautiful’ is not only a reminder that we are in fact here; but we are in fact good. And if black can be beautiful, then why can’t being a nigga be a good thing?

It’s the Hill District, Pittsburgh, 1969. This is where niggas live. Jim Crow didn’t die once he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line; instead his overt influence shifted to a more covert and insidious existence in cities up north such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cleveland. He found easy sanctuary in building contracts, imminent domain claims, and employment repudiations, where important rules can be written without much notice, where racism and segregation were just as baked into the system, just not as publicly. It’s during this time of civil-unrest and social awakening, in a once vibrant neighborhood, that we watch the slow whisper of time descend on a small diner where the former problem of having too few chairs for patrons has now become the problem of having too many empty chairs.

Alan Bomar Jones, Dennis Spears, and James Craven. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Alan Bomar Jones as Holloway, Dennis Spears as West, and James Craven as Memphis. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Memphis, the single-minded restaurateur at the center of the play, is performed with a deliberate determination by James Craven, and he has a way of speaking that when his voice cracks from feeling violated, you almost forget what an insufferable son-of-a-bitch he can be.

Risa, owned by Erika LaVonn, brings a quiet omnipotence in her performance. With few words, her eyes command respect and forethought that no other character emphasizes throughout. Her masterful trick is fooling the world into thinking it is silencing her, when the reality is she has decided not to speak. She watches and knows the clockworks of the world, even if it is only placing a cap on hat rack everyday.

Ahanti Young, Cedric Mays, and Erika LaVonn. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Cedric Mays as Sterling and Erika LaVonn as Risa. Photo courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company.

Lester Purry wields a grin like a weapon and I have no doubt, many have fallen from it. Mr. Purry plays Wolf, a man who knows the hustle, with such a realistic ferocity that every phone call, gait, laugh, and scribble on his bookie pad seems like ATC just went to Silverlake and 22nd and asked for a corner-boy to play an actor for a night.

Which brings us to the rest of these standout actors that turned the stage into a smudged glass window so we could peer inside and watch a moment in time that seems eerily like today; Holloway (Alan Bomar Jones) and West (Dennis W. Spears) were characters who provided an emotional stabilizer for the rest of the cast. Not necessarily understated, their roles were subdued proficiently by Bellamy, so that when Holloway asks, “Which is better, the fields or the streets?” the audience doesn’t need further explanation.

And lastly we have Sterling and Hambone, played unparalleled by Ahanti Young. Whereas all the other characters railed, cursed, embraced, or shrugged off how the world saw them, these two did not. Hambone, ultimately impotent but completely justified in his need to be given what was his, but not knowing how to say it, and Sterling, knowing exactly what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to, but still trying to find his own voice.

And when Sterling did find his voice, it was in the form a three worded question: “Where’s my ham?”

Scenic Designer Vicki Smith continues her dazzling ability, as she had done in Low Down Dirty Blues, to construct pieces that resonate with the time and feeling of an era without inundating the audience with unnecessary flamboyant novelties. Choosing to stick with very earthen colors for the structural elements of the diner, she weaves in history through old Dad’s Rootbeer placards that rust above the kitchen, carefully placed jackets that subtly tip-toed greys and greens on the wall, and the most deceptively resonant stage props: shining, cerulean blue barstools. The cushions are a slice of blue so vibrant, yet unassuming, they became inanimate reaffirmations of the individuals that inhabited the same space.

Arizona Theatre Company’s Resident Sound Designer, Brian Jerome Peterson, delivered intermixed a smoke compilation of jazz and blues, electric and folk, and even soul, so that we are not tied to a day from a song-list, we are connected to entire generations through song. This harmonic gateway started the only way it was could have as far as I’m concerned: On the Trail from the Miles Davis album Grand Canyon Suite. As slow, nightscape scales, pips, and bursts drip down, the flats and sharps rest easy on every piece of fabric that touches the ensemble cast as if the notes were woven into the thread before the show.

Lighting Designer Don Darnutzer enhanced the raw feelings expressed throughout the production by highlighting the stage with ethereal god-ray type lighting, in both moments of blossoming love to disdainful reflection, reminding me that heavenly moments can be found when the world is falling apart. Even if the world may not be falling apart completely, it’s certainly following that predictable ebb and flow we can’t ever seem to escape. There is an inevitable rock in the stream marking where our history and our future intersect in the present, and how the lessons learned before now seem to go forgotten, only to be relearned later in the hopes that this time they will take hold.
So where are tracks taking us now? We know what happens to Hill district by the end of Act III, but it’s now that we have the opportunity to actually get somewhere. As important to remember the Memphis, Risas, and Sterlings of the past it is just as important also recognizing the Kapernicks, Castiles, Gardeners, Rices, and Martins of today. They were all niggas and that doesn’t make them bad. But it defines them.

And isn’t that the point? How we define ourselves. The businesses we build. The individuality we ascribe. The knowledge we collect. The bodies we bury. The scars we collect. Or, as Wolf so eloquently embodied for us with the grace of gold-plated peacock, “the amount of money in yo’ pocket.” These aspects of worth are what is being taken and thrust upon the characters as they find time to be distracted by neighborhood myths and invisible thieves. Yet, the silence was undeniable when the most important question wasn’t being asked anymore: “Where’s my Ham?” Because it was never a question. It was never a plea. It was a demand for an answer. The owed answer to the historic and perpetuated denial of one’s own right to their own very existence as a person. The denial of the fact that I am, in fact, right here.

So where’s my ham, nigga!?

Watch Two Trains Running at the Temple of Music and Art through February 9th. Showtimes and tickets are available at arizonatheatre.org.

 

About the guest reviewer:
Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson (Actor) was born in Kokomo, Indiana. He has no relevant education from any formal institution in theater or film. His writing career comprises of columnist work for The Arizona Daily Star, editor for Persona Magazine, content creator of Looking Back manuscript for P.C.C., Sandscript Magazine contributor, and editor and columnist for Gourmet News for which he received a James Beard nomination for his article, “Holy See-Food”. He is also a Hearst Poet and a published IEEE author (2018-2019), as well as a technical writer whose proposals, grants and speeches have totaled in over $250k in gained between 2016 to now. Since 2017, The Community Players produced his stage play, Last Call, followed by performances in No Admittance (Bill Bowen) and One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest (Chief), numerous Radio Theater shows, backstage crew for ‘Shakespeare in the Park’ (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) as well as multiple roles in musical shows. In 2018, he worked under Eugenia Wood in Hark, with Ron Athey, Cassils, and Arshia Fatima in Cyclic, and produced his original manuscript The GRANDest Pageant. Films include Rise, The Righteous Twelve, and The GRANDest Pageant. In 2019, he founded Graveyard Production Company (www.gyproco.com) and will perform Exist.