By Bill Hirschman
Langston Hughes wrote of “a dream deferred” from the elevated promontory of poetry; but the great playwright August Wilson wrote from the street what it was like living through a dream being deferred.
The neighbors gathering daily at Memphis Lee’s restaurant in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1968 are dealing with Black Power invoked at rallies just outside their door. Unadorned racism, economic inequity and death are integrally embedded in every aspect of their lives as completely as the sunrise.
And once again, M Ensemble captures the very essence of an era in Wilson’s Two Trains Running, honored by a cast inhabiting the vibrant array of residents and deftly orchestrated direction.
They embrace Wilson’s jovial banter, witty quips and lengthy bouts of storytelling. But they thrive delivering the aria-like monologues that Wilson crafts like Shakespearean soliloquies in the eloquence of everyday language that borders on its own kind of poetry – including copious use of the N-word.
We see and hear them trying to maintain their pride and self-respect in a world they know is completely stacked against them, underscored with sorrow, frustration and bursts of fury.
Like many of Wilson’s plays, this one is more interested in portraying a sense of time and characters than in a driving narrative. The plot, such as it is, tracks Memphis fighting to sell his café for a significant profit representing years of personal investment. The city plans to demolish everything in the block for some urban renewal project and wants to underpay him.
But the real meat of the evening is watching and listening to this cadre trying to figure out who they are, where they fit in the future and what their dreams really are – when the classic American Dream has clearly been put out of their reach.
The tall, muscular Memphis (Melvin Huffnagle) has invested his integrity and hard-work into this business after bigots chased him out of his family’s Mississippi farm years ago. But as the city’s plans emerge, the neighborhood and his business are vanishing.
Long-time older patron Holloway (Chat Atkins) is a grinning philosophical storyteller known as a seer and proponent of the ancient Aunt Ester’s magical powers.
Wolf (Jean Hyppolite) is the 30-ish fast-talking numbers runner who isn’t adverse to carrying a pistol.
Sterling (Chaz Reuben) is an ultra-genial young man fresh out of prison for a botched bank robbery but is inserting himself back in the fast lane with wall-bouncing fervor. “All I do is to try to live in the world, but the world done gone crazy,” he says.
Risa (Pamela Hankerson) is a lovely waitress who has spent much of her life staving off the attentions of men like Sterling and Wolf – hoping to put them all off by slicing wounds in her shapely legs.
Hambone (Keith C. Wade) is Wilson’s seemingly required mentally challenged character who can only utter two sentences and whom the community watches over.
West (Ray Lockhart) is the relatively well-off funeral home operator wanting to pressure Memphis into an early sale that will make West more money.
Their verbal interaction is a blinding torrent of verbiage and insights and opinions reflecting the time of change in the aftermath of the Malcolm X murder. Wilson and M Ensemble deliver an unvarnished, unapologetic, undiluted truth in a long, dense journey.
Crucial to its success is the direction and staging of M Ensemble veteran André L. Gainey, who arguably delivers the best work we’ve seen from his lengthy career.
He successfully counteracts the overwhelmingly verbal tsunami by physicalizing the evening in every way possible from characters moving around to fingers twitching to each character walking with a different gait to people literally reaching out to each other.
He equally succeeds in orchestrating the pace, volume and intensity of passion as emotions surge and recede.
All of the performances are unassailable – a sharp rebuke for local artistic directors who complain there aren’t enough skilled Black actors in the region. (Get a ticket and see). But Huffnagle, a New York actor currently teaching at Florida International University, is a major find who creates a volcanic, titanic, intense Memphis full of passion and pain.
M Ensemble has already produced Wilson’s entire ten-play Century Cycle saga, which has each play represent a decade in the Black experience from the 1920s to the 1990s. Some are better known and more widely produced such as Fences set in the 1950s. But the company is intent on revisiting them all.
Some admirers of Wilson’s work will acknowledge that he could have used an editor – this 1992 Pulitzer finalist is three hours and five minutes long in two acts, with long stretches more focused on revealing character than advancing a story.
But there are these breath-taking speeches, such as this one about the Black leaders who aren’t effectively taking advantage of the hard-won advances of the recent past — masterfully delivered by Huffnagle.
“These n——s talking about freedom, justice and equality and don’t know what it mean. You born free. It’s up to you to maintain it. You born with dignity and everything else. These n—–s talking about freedom, but what you gonna do with it? Freedom is heavy. You got to put your shoulder to freedom. Put your shoulder to it and hope your back hold up. And if you’re around here looking for justice, you got a long wait. Ain’t no justice. That’s why they got that statue of her and got her blindfolded.”
Kudos once again to M Ensemble’s ongoing set and lighting designer Mitchell Ost who has created the restaurant environment with visible I-beams overhead.
Two Trains Running at M Ensemble runs through May 28 at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 N.W. Seventh Ave., Miami. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets general admission $36, seniors and students $26. Running time 3 hours 5 minutes with one intermission. Call (305) 200-5043 or visit themensemble.com.