M Ensemble Rolls On With Compelling, Complex Two Trains Running

Two Trains Running, the latest offering from M Ensemble at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, isn’t just another production of an August Wilson play. It’s an ongoing part of the mission of Florida’s oldest professional Black theater company.

M Ensemble Rolls On With Compelling, Complex Two Trains Running
Life Style

Creating thought-provoking art for its audiences for more than half a century now, M Ensemble is still led by cofounders Shirley Richardson and Patricia E. Williams. (The late T.G. Cooper was its third founder.)

With several generations of colleagues, the women have presented the work of a wide variety of Black playwrights; given opportunities to an uncounted number of actors, designers, and behind-the-scenes workers; and artistically nurtured future theatergoers through the company’s programs for children.

Inarguably, among M Ensemble’s most significant programming has been producing all ten plays in the late August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle (initially called the Century Cycle): Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney, Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, and Radio Golf.

Wilson, who grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where most of these plays are set, is considered one of the country’s greatest playwrights. Fences and The Piano Lesson brought him Pulitzer Prizes. The Pittsburgh Cycle, with each play set in a different decade of the 20th Century, brought him fame. And in creating worlds filled with vivid Black characters, his singular blend of humor and tragedy, poetic and vernacular language, African and American traditions, and history made his work unforgettable.

M Ensemble first presented Two Trains Running, a play set in 1969, in 2004 — nearly 20 years ago. The company’s audiences have grown and changed as older theatergoers have departed and younger ones have taken their place. Its performance location has also changed, from its longtime home in North Miami to Miami-Dade County’s state-of-the-art Sandrell Rivers Theater in Liberty City.

The point: Plenty of M Ensemble’s audiences and Miami theater fans generally haven’t seen Two Trains Running onstage. Now they can and should.

The title refers to the daily trains between Pittsburgh and Jackson, Mississippi, once home to restaurant owner Memphis Lee (Melvin Huffnagle). But in the metaphorical sense, Wilson has said, the trains represent life and death — so riding them is universal and non-negotiable.

The play is set entirely inside Memphis’ Hill District restaurant, a cozy place with a couple of booths covered in black vinyl, a table, a counter, and blackboards in place of menus. It’s also a place where the illegal numbers racket thrives, so the winning combination goes on the menu board daily, despite Memphis’ worry about cops showing up. A perpetually broken jukebox sits near the door, the covers of unplayable albums adorning the wall beside it, along with signed black-and-white photos of celebrities who, presumably, have dined at Memphis Lee’s.

Designed by Mitchell Ost (who also did the fine lighting) and built by Geordan Gottlieb, the eatery — in tones of pale gold, red and green — is inviting if simple. The costumes by Chasity Hart reveal how well or poorly each character is living, good times and hard times obvious to everyone who sees them.

Though the restaurant is tidy thanks to Risa (Pamela Hankerson), a quiet cook and server who is the entire staff, it has seen better days — as have most of the folks who gather there daily to share rumors or gossip, ruminate on life or eat whatever Risa can find to cook in the understocked kitchen.

Politics, protest, and the injustices of the turbulent '60s go on outside the restaurant. But inside is a refuge — not to say voices don’t get raised — where Memphis and his few remaining customers can let off steam, philosophize, or talk out their problems.

Memphis, for example, is about to unwillingly sell his restaurant to the city as urban renewal sweeps through the neighborhood. He paid $5,500 for it back in the day, and it was once profitable, but the business and its owner have fallen on hard times. He’s expecting a lowball offer from the bureaucrats, though West (Ray Lockhart), the wealthy owner of the funeral home across the street, says he’ll pay $15,000. No deal, Memphis rages. He won’t take a penny less than $25,000.

At the opposite end of the Hill District’s socioeconomic scale is Hambone (Keith C. Wade), an impoverished, damaged man who loudly repeats a single sentence: “He gonna give me my ham!” You can feel tragedy on the horizon as the meaning of a years-long obsession is eventually revealed.

Wolf (Jean Hyppolite) hangs out and uses the restaurant’s pay phone to take bets on the numbers, no matter how many times Memphis yells at him not to do it. Soon Sterling (Chaz Reuben), newly released from prison, shows up. In short order, he falls for Risa, tangles with Wolf, and becomes the subject of speculation by the others: Which one, Sterling or Wolf, will end up dead, and which will end up behind bars?

Holloway (Chat Atkins), newly retired, talks at length about the exploitation of Black people by white ones, the foolishness of plenty of Black folks — well, give him a topic, and he’ll run with it. It’s Holloway who first utters the name “Aunt Ester” in an August Wilson play (she’s mentioned in others and then made flesh in Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean), and he urges anyone with troubles to seek out the ancient prophet, who professes to be 322 years old.

Staged by André L. Gainey, a longtime M Ensemble company member, the production brings out fine work by each of the actors, veterans and newcomers alike.

Huffnagle gets several lengthy Wilson soliloquies (or arias, perhaps?) and tears into them with a magnetic commitment. He relates a horrifying story about how Memphis was cheated out of his farmland back in Jackson, and he makes the telling so vivid that you want to weep.

Hyppolite and Reuben bring boundless energy to their portrayals of Wolf and Sterling. Hyppolite's Wolf is full of cockiness and hustle. Reuben's Sterling is a hugely unrealistic dreamer who bounces from one idea to the next, though he's undeterred in his pursuit of Risa. Why Hankerson's Risa, who has self-harmed by scarring her legs to keep men at bay, eventually softens toward the relentless Sterling is a bit of a mystery.

Lockhart is cool as a cucumber as West, low-key and slightly menacing in his almost all-black outfit (hat and gloves included). He's among the wealthiest residents of the Hill District, and before long, Lockhart shows us how the sly West got that way.

Atkins and Wade appeared in M Ensemble's earlier production of Two Trains Running in different roles. Old hands and wonderful actors, the two completely inhabit their new characters. Atkins is a garrulous, funny, sobering storyteller. Wade, who was incredibly moving as Gabriel (another damaged Wilson character) in the company's 2016 production of Fences, has little dialogue as Hambone. But his watchful, contained performance becomes its own kind of eloquence.

Watching Two Trains Running, which unfolds over nearly three hours, serves as a reminder that the intricate, stubbornly persistent roots of racism run deep. Wilson demonstrates, as he does throughout the Pittsburgh Cycle, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. His language, craft, and larger-than-life yet familiar characters make M Ensemble's Two Trains Running a journey worth taking.