As its debut outing, Ebony Repertory Theater offers an ambitious if mildly off-kilter staging of August Wilson’s insightful “Two Trains Running,” the seventh in a 10-play series chronicling the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. Helmer Israel Hicks and a capable ensemble understand the rhythmic flow and subtextual undercurrent of Wilson’s language. Unfortunately, the actors must project across Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s finely detailed but oversized restaurant setting, hampering the needed intimacy and immediacy of the character interplay.
As in the other works in the cycle, this legiter is imbedded in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Set in 1969, the action follows the social interactions of the denizens inhabiting an aged diner that is about to fall victim, along with the rest of neighborhood, to the city’s plan for urban renewal.
Anchoring the production is Glynn Turman’s ragingly intense portrayal of restaurant owner Memphis, who is determined to beat the white man and get the price he demands for the city’s demolition of his property. Projecting a lifetime of disappointment in every word, Turman’s Memphis dismisses proclaimers of “Black is beautiful” as fools who are “trying to convince themselves.”
Equally skeptical is retired house painter turned philosopher Holloway, portrayed with an infectious amalgam of wit and outrage by Roger Robinson. He projects a captivating logic that attacks the white man’s exploitation of black labor and any effort by the exploited black man to fight back.
Providing counterpoint to the musings of the two central protagonists is Sterling (Russell Hornsby), a recently released young convict who enthusiastically embraces the new-order teachings of Malcolm X yet does not have the emotional capacity to become a functioning member of society. Falling victim to the vast onstage space, Hornsby overly projects his character’s passions as if he is talking to someone in the next room rather than right in front of him.
Michole Briana White, as the diner’s downtrodden waitress and cook Risa, an emotionally stunted young woman, impressively sucks in the audience’s attention by underplaying Risa’s emotional struggle to remain sane and functioning.
Before he even makes an appearance onstage, much is said about West (Earl Billings), the neighborhood undertaker whose pragmatic view of death has made him its wealthiest entrepreneur. West has much to say about the realities of life, but Billings needs to slow down his discourse to be properly understood.
Completing the ensemble are Ellis E. Williams’ one-note portrayal of Hambone, a mentally unbalanced laborer who “ain’t willing to accept whatever the white man throw at him,” and Felton Perry’s infectious portrayal of numbers runner Wolf.