- Memphis blues: Charles Weldon boasts plenty of energy, but little variety.
While most new plays, with their generic cellophane-wrapped laughs and freeze-dried characters, offer little more stimulation than running an errand at the corner convenience store, Wilson's work consistently sends audiences on expeditions into a theatrical rain forest. His plays have a vividness and unrelenting life force, teeming with lush, dense foliage inhabited by primeval supernatural forces.
As anyone lucky enough to experience the Play House's production of Two Trains Running will realize, Wilson's greatest gift is his idiosyncratic language -- as distinct as that of Tennessee Williams or Samuel Beckett. His words are rooted firmly in a black vernacular, seasoned with the sass of the blues, yet there is an Old Testament majesty. Sometimes his arias of universal longing become so overpowering, one almost expects to hear them sung in an opera house.
The theme that permeates his work is the ongoing recovery from the damage of slavery. Wilson writes of a people still looking for a spiritual homeland and a sense of belonging. Anyone attending this play should be warned, however, that Wilson's epics can be long and unruly, and at times could benefit from an explanatory road map.
Two Trains, originally produced in 1992, is set in the '60s and is part of Wilson's wildly ambitious cycle that chronicles the progress of African American lives in each decade of the 20th century.
This is perhaps his most temperate, optimistic work, in that the sudden violence and angry ghosts here are kept at bay, and the supernatural is merely suggested in the offstage "349-year-old" soothsayer, Aunt Esther, who advises her clients to throw their troubles, along with her fees, into the river.
Here, the playwright focuses on urban renewal and the insidious ways it destroys communities. The customers of Memphis Lee's restaurant are trying to grab their share of life's riches before the advent of the wrecking ball. They flit and glow with eternal energy and optimism, attempting to eschew the urban violence, prejudice, faithless lovers, and loneliness that surround them.
In Felix E. Cochren's evocative set of a once-prosperous diner gone to seed, engulfed by bare branches and dingy brick walls, we have a numbers runner looking to get ahead, an old man still attempting to make peace over the memory of a grandfather who sold his dignity to the white man, a literally and figuratively scarred waitress looking for a man she can trust, and the owner of a soon-to-be-closed diner demanding a fair price for his restaurant so he can go back down South to reclaim his lost pride and farm. Most moving is a mentally damaged giant, shouting for the ham he was cheated out of nine years before by a white store owner.
Like a Homeric bard, Wilson weaves a mythology out of strands from the past. We hear of a dead gambler's funeral that turned into an orgy. There are tales of whimsical chicanery, such as four or five stiffs buried in the same recycled suit. We see the stirrings of black power ("You've got to put your shoulder to freedom. These niggers around here talking about being black and beautiful sound like they're trying to convince themselves.").
Director Chuck Patterson, who acted in the original Broadway production, stages this version with the aplomb of a psalm singer. With one exception, he maneuvers a cast of eye-popping extroverts to a promised land full of fire and music.
As an elusive, quixotic waitress, Yvette Ganier conveys a fragile tenderness and focused intensity that make viewers her captive. Like a great silent-film actress, she exudes mystery through her movements and presence. The way she slides a sugar canister across the counter defines a life of unfulfilled expectations. When she learns to trust at the end, it's like watching a frozen meadow in its first spring thaw.
As respective archetypes of youthful potential, enraged vulnerability, and crafty wisdom, Ed Blunt, Brian Anthony Wilson, and Herb Downer offer performances that are robust, sensitive, and down-home funny. Leon Addison Brown and Count Stovall also add to Wilson's pyrotechnics.
The one discordant note is Charles Weldon's performance as restaurant owner Memphis. It is a role that should hold the play together. In spite of a surplus of energy, he lacks the emotional and vocal variety to do justice to Wilson's poetry. Weldon renders his role as one loud, monochromatic bellow.
It will take at least a good 50 years for Wilson to officially enter the pantheon of O'Neill, Williams, and Albee. However, this Play House production offers affirmation of a noble giant starting to head toward that stratosphere.