By Mary Boyle
August Wilson may very well be the greatest African American playwright in history. His collection of 10 plays, known as the Pittsburgh or Century Cycle, are a snapshot of the American experience over the 20th Century through the unrepresented lens of Black Americans. Powerful, insightful, and quite often humorous, Wilson's plays have received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for both Fences and The Piano Lesson, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Citation for Best American Play for Two Trains Running, which has made its way to The Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse Theater through May 12th in downtown Milwaukee.
Set in 1969, the entirety of Two Trains Running takes place in a once thriving diner in a once thriving neighborhood of Pittsburgh owned by Memphis (Raymond Anthony Thomas). As the neighborhood has fallen into decline, the City has been purchasing property though Eminent Domain. The diner is next on their list, but Memphis isn't going quietly. Clearly still the heart of what's left of the neighborhood, the diner supports a diverse variety of regulars, all served by Risa (Malkia Stampley), the only waitress left. Wolf (Jefferson A. Russell) is a Bookie who runs numbers through the diner; Holloway (Michael Anthony Williams) is perhaps the oldest and wisest member of the community; West (Doug Brown) is the local undertaker; Sterling (Chiké Johnson) knew Risa growing up and was recently released from the penitentiary, and Hambone (Frank Britton) is...well, Hambone is special.
As the play progresses, each of the character's stories are revealed, and they share common themes: hardship, bitterness and, against all odds, hope. Wilson's writing is masterful, thoroughly transporting the audience into the period with brutal honesty and clarity, reaching back into the character's lives to create a clear picture of how they came to be where they are, and how the color of their skin played an inescapable role in their lives.
Directed by Timothy Douglas, Two Trains Running features two of Milwaukee's finest, who both gave performances that proved they deserved the title: Chiké Johnson, who was seen last season in The Rep's production of Our Town, and Malkia Stampley, who has been on just about every stage in Milwaukee, as well as recently directing Five Guys Named Moe at Skylight Music Theatre. Doug Brown, who plays West, was last seen on The Rep stage in their 2010 production of Wilson's Radio Golf, but the remainder of the cast are making their (very impressive) Rep debuts. The soundtrack for the production is fantastic, and so is the set design by Tony Cisek and the costumes by Kara Harmon. Altogether, an outstanding performance of a remarkable play.
Two Trains Running goes through May 12th at the Quadracci Theater, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, in terms of audiences served, and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions, ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays, and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 65th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change, and a forward-thinking provider of .vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.