Sunday, April 13, 2003

'Trains Running' right on time

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Maha McCain plays Risa and Darryl Hilton is Holloway in Two Trains Running.

It's a rare treat to see some of the best of the African-American acting community gathered on Gabriel's Corner stage for August Wilson's gorgeous slice-of-life Two Trains Running.

Wilson stands as the contemporary stage's poet of the 20th-century African-American experience, and I've always thought the infrequently revived Two Trains is every bit the equal of award-winning Fences.

It's a real pleasure to be able to urge audiences to find their way to Know Theatre Tribe to get a taste of it.

The space is low rent (at the corner of Sycamore and Liberty streets in Over-the-Rhine), the production values are painfully inadequate (it looks like the whole thing was put together on $20) but fine performances anchor the show under the typically strong direction of Luther Gibson.

Two Trains should make me wonder why this kind of talent is relegated to the outer edge of the local theater scene on absolutely no budget, but it doesn't. Like the rest of downtown, Cincinnati's theater scene can be mighty white.

Two Trains represents the 1960s in Wilson's decade-by-decade look at the 20th century through black eyes. The action is set, as always, in Pittsburgh.

The neighborhood is falling before urban renewal, the Black Power movement is starting to stir, restaurant owner Memphis (Reggie Willis) is pondering former and current injustices (how much will The Man be paying him when eminent domain is enforced?), and people are living and dying, as evidenced by the comings-and-goings at the funeral home across the street.

Regular folks populate Memphis' place, but Wilson lets us get to know them intimately as they hold forth and tell stories, and what fine stories they are. Wilson uses them to illuminate souls and a society.

The best actors are riveting, and even the lesser performers understand their job.

Reggie Willis, fresh from Master Harold ...and the Boys, gives another big, full performance as a man whose past weighs heavily on him. The two trains of the title are the daily connection between Pittsburgh and the Jackson, Miss., home where he needs to settle some ghosts.

Willis is an anchor any production would want.

There's terrific support from Darryl Hilton as the neighborhood philosopher. Curtis Drake Shepard and Maha McCain are a nice pairing as an ex-con and the pretty waitress who has applied a razor to her legs so that people will really see her. Dion Boles is an easy presence as the local numbers runner.

Two Trains Running, through April 26, Know Theatre Tribe, Gabriel's Corner, Sycamore at Liberty streets. 300-5669.

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