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Celebrating Urban Life Since 1989

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  • CSEA_Help Wanted_Labor Relations
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Keeping the Rhythm of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running

Hope has turned to cynicism in 1969 when August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running takes place. Here, at Memphis Lee’s soul food diner, is where we find an eccentric cast of characters-an undertaker, a gambler, a waitress and a man nicknamed Hambone because he constantly rambles on about a ham owed to him. They are skeptical and disillusioned about how much the Civil Rights Movement will actually improve the quality of their lives.

Then, in comes Sterling, a young man who has just been released from jail, and is full of hope that life can only get better. He is the opposite of Memphis and Hambone who are both psychologically and physically stuck, in their own ways, in the injustices done to them.

Two Trains Running is a part of Wilson’s, 10-play, 20th Century Cycle. One of the most outstanding achievements of American playwriting, the cycle chronicles a century, not only of African American life, but of American life. Wilson uses Pittsburgh’s Hill district, a predominantly African American community, as his microcosm.

Syracuse Stage producing artistic director Timothy Bond had a personal relationship with Wilson, and is committed to bringing the entire10-play cycle to the Syracuse community.

“I watched August in the back of an empty theatre during rehearsal with his head down, eyes closed, foot tapping, feeling the rhythm of the dialogue,” Bond said. “He would look up from time-to-time and take a note when the rhythm wasn’t right.”

All of the plays in the cycle situate the black experience as America’s journey of hope through the twentieth century. Wilson incorporates pivotal moments of America’s black history in his scripts, and often examines the effects of these events on romantic relationships between black men and women.

Wilson traces her legacy back to1904 when his play Gem of the Ocean is set. The play takes place in her home on Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill community. She welcomes lost souls to stay with her and be cleaned.

Fast forward 80 years, and a character announces her death in King Hedley II, Wilson’s 80s play. By this time Wilson believes African Americans have forgotten their connection to their ancestors, and as a result she dies.

Posthumously her legacy continues in Radio Golf, which is set among the black middle class in the early 90s. There is a lot of controversy over selling her house for new development. By the 90s there are some people who believe African Americans have arrived and have no need for her. They see their history as a reminder of ills done to them, rather than as a testament to their unbreakable spirits. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who believe she is still necessary, because all has not been healed.

Chronologically as written, Two Trains Running is the first play Aunt Ester is mentioned in. From the turn of the century to present, which is 1969 in Two Trains Running, Aunt Ester endured. Her wisdom affects everyone she encounters, which is why she is often referred to throughout the cycle as the “washer of souls.” Aunt Ester’s healing powers ultimately uplift the characters through Sterling’s interactions with her in Two Trains Running.

Part of the reason Bond was drawn to staging Two Trains Running now, is because the character Sterling also appears in Radio Golf, which Syracuse Stage audiences saw produced in 2011. In Syracuse Stage’s 40 seasons, six of Wilson’s 10 plays have been produced-Gem of the Ocean, Jitney, The Piano Lesson, Fences and under Bond’s direction Radio Golf, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences again.

During the 1992 Broadway theatre season Two Trains Running received the American Theatre Critics’ Association
Award, the New York Drama Critics Circle Citation for Best American Play and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. “Watching a genius playwright in process was one of the great privileges of my life,” Bond said. “Hearing him act out his characters, I heard their rhythms, inflections and passions
directly from the playwright.”

Thematically Two Trains Running is among the most politically potent of Wilson’s plays. By 1969 Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy-champions of the Civil Rights Movement- have all been assassinated, and people feel as if life as they knew it is over. That feeling resounds today, as America is in the midst of a great recession, people have lost their jobs and homes and the cost of living is ever increasing.

There are also striking parallels between what happened in Pittsburgh’s Hill district and Syracuse. Violent riots and looting in the Hill district after King’s assassination held grave consequences for the neighborhood, making it largely ignored by city government. This meant there was no funding allocated to rebuild black businesses as integration spread.

During the 1960s the federal government allotted money to several cities for urban renewal. For Syracuse this included the expansion of the interstate system. When I-81 was built through the middle of the Syracuse, the 15th ward was cut in half, and this meant the end of many black businesses. The project also displaced many residents in the 15th ward, causing many people to relocate to the south side.

Showing reverence to the spirit of black entrepreneurship is something Bond and set designer William Bloodgood want reflected in the scenic design for Two Trains Running. They are paying close attention to details in the creation of the diner, while also representing the city outside the diner walls. Much of the play’s humor comes from characters’ observations about the community, namely the line of people wrapped around the corner for a local businessman’s funeral. The man is rumored to have had the Midas touch, and many people are hoping to attain wealth by being in his presence.

“There are unexpected treasures in his plays,” Bond said. “I hope people leave the show feeling like there’s a voice that speaks to their experiences.”

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A Celebration of Black Icons in Dance

Community Folk Art Center 805 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, NY, United States

Join Classical Dance Trailblazer, Charles Haislah, The Creative Arts Academy, and CFAC-DanceLab for an evening of captivating performances and dance history. This event is free and open to the community!

Free and open to the community

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