Black is beautiful

"Two Trains Running" – directed by Nancy Medina - Coproduction of Royal&Derngate and English Touring Theatre, London

The play „Two Trains Running" directed by Nancy Medina is a coproduction of the Royal&Derngate Theatre of Northampton and English Touring Theatre. It is a story of African American societies from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The action of the play takes place in 1969, when Richard Nixon, supporter of a race segregation, was just appointed as the President of the United States.

A leading theme of a play is Memphis' diner placed in a poor black neighbourhood. The diner, being an parallelism to the Chekhovian Cherry Orchard, is threatened by a purchase and a demolition by Urban Redevelopment Authority, a body owned by a white financier Richard K Mellon.

First of all, few words need to be told about the author of the play, August Wilson, who hasn't received much attention in Poland either in theatre or in literary circles. His pieces have not been translated to Polish yet, which is a pity, as Wilson raised topics that were difficult to discuss, but at the same time were essential for the development of a society, like, for example, racial discrimination. What's more important, the American playwright could write about obnoxious topics in a light and lucid way, while he did not resign from brutal statements that could uncover human foolishness behind such a primitive phenomenon as racial discrimination. Even though in Poland discrimination based on a skin colour had never taken place on a similar scale as in the United States, there is plenty of things that could be learnt from Wilson's dramas, mainly about discrimination and its effects on the victims' sanity and self-esteem. Especially as 'anti-narration' towards people of different nationality, faith or sexual orientation is shamefully getting more and more popular in a national television and social media.

Wilson's script provides lots of potential, both for the director and the cast. Author created seven distinct archetypes of characters, all of which were played excellently. Above all, there was the only female figure in the play, Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh), who made a lasting impression. Although most of the time Risa was a rather side character in this still-strongly-dependent-on-men reality of sixties, she seemed to be a strong and determined woman. However, at the same time she made an impression of a subtle female, who was struggling with loneliness in an overcrowded city of Pittsburgh. Using Risa, Nancy Medina extracted from the script another major theme – discrimination and objectification of women. To underline this, the character of Memphis (Andrew French), the owner of the diner, was needed. Most of the time, he probably did not even realise how much he underappreciated Risa's hard work and engagement in his diner. French's character was another attention-grabbing creation, especially regarding his conservative attitude towards his role of a victim. Memphis often argued that world was brutal and no marches or rallies could change his situation of an African American. In opposition towards his attitude there was a young, vigorous Sterling (Michale Salami), an embodiment of a romantic character, who was firmly opposing his fate through attending the demonstrations of the Black Power Movement. However, the most interesting male character was probably Holloway (Leon Herbert), an old man, who suffered through much tougher times. Herbert created a unique character, a personification of wisdom. He brings to mind the Greek Tiresias, as he was able to distance himself from the rest of the characters, and similarly to the ancient prophet he understood the past, its effects and influence on the present.

Nancy Medina along with designer Frankie Bredshaw created an unique and symbolic stage space. The limited area of the diner imitated a sentimental microcosmos, which separated characters of the play from the rest of the overwhelming day-to-day reality of Pittsburgh. Windows of the diner played essential role as well – characters often unconsciously starred through them as they were wondering about their own dreams and goals. Another meaningful symbol were Black Power slogans, which were placed behind one of the windows, outside of the dinner. It could symbolise Memphis' firm cut off from upcoming social changes. Also the wrecking ball, which was placed above the dinner from the very beginning – it was a foreshadowing of the unavoidable fate. It suggested that human lives are already determined. Their actions do have influence on the way life would unfold, but, unfortunately, the final result remains inevitable, just like in a Greek tragedy.

Lights directed by Amy Mae also played a major role in a creation of the diner's space. Even though the place was a bit neglected and dirty, thanks to the lights it became idealised, which underlined the unique atmosphere of the sixties, when the black pop culture and race consciousness bloomed. Such atmosphere was complemented by the music designed by Ed Lewis, who used jazz hits composed by black artists.

"Two Trains Running" is a play, which has to be seen. Especially as the tour over the United Kingdom provides British audience such an opportunity. It is a show primarily sentimental and moving, but also light and comic. In Nancy Medina's spectacle you can see  first-class acting, distinct relations between the characters and, what is most important, the director's intelligent approach towards the difficult and demanding classic piece by August Wilson.

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Polish version -->

Jan Gruca
Theater Journal London
9 września 2019
Portrety
Nancy Medina

Książka tygodnia

Trojanki Jana Klaty
Wydawnictwo Universitas
Olga Śmiechowicz

Trailer tygodnia