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Take Your Teens to 'Two Trains Running'

The themes of August Wilson's civil rights-era play ring true today

Published on: January 19, 2018

"Two Trains Running"
Risa (Nicole Lewis), Sterling (Carlton Byrd) and diner owner Memphis Lee (Eugene Lee) make their way in 1960s Pittsburgh. Photo credit: Seattle Repertory Theatre

It always amazes me how you can live in a place for years and still not know it. Take, for example, the red door on Warren and Republican by the Seattle Center. 

That door sits on August Wilson Way, an avenue named after the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. It’s also the address of such notable Seattle institutions as SIFF and the International Fountain.

I’ve walked by it a million times and never known Wilson’s special connection to our city. He moved here in 1990 while in the middle of completing his Century Cycle of plays. That cycle includes 10 plays, one per decade in the 20th century. They primarily focus on Black working class people who live in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wilson completed the cycle in 2005, the same year he died of liver cancer in Seattle.

Pittsburgh is where we find ourselves at the start of “Two Trains Running,” the latest show at Seattle Rep and the Century Cycle installment set in the 1960s and, more specifically, during the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s easy to assume that the play will have us out in the streets, seeing on stage the images we’ve grown to associate with that era. But while Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. are mentioned and there’s plenty of talk about rallies and marches, “Two Trains Running” distills our world to a diner. We start there. We end there.

That may sound boring. It’s not. “Two Trains Running” errs on the side of monologues. No surprise there; Wilson’s work lends itself to monologues (the Rep is one of 12 theaters nationwide hosting the August Wilson Monologue Competition next month, open to all high school students). But the essence of the play isn’t nearly as long-winded. In fact, it’s all too familiar.

Here you have seven people, each connected in a different degree to the tumult raging just outside the diner. Some are fully wired in, raring to make change happen. Others are more jaded. They’ve been around, seen some things and survive. How realistic is all this talk of change anyway? 

The combination leads to an undercurrent of drama that younger viewers likely won’t get. But your older teens, the ones who are still smarting that they couldn’t vote in the 2016 election? They’ll love this play.

The Rep knows as much. (Their summary of the play starts with “There’s a new President in the White House and racial tensions are on the rise” — sound familiar?) Tapping into that, the Rep created this play guide for teachers but parents may find it interesting, too. A line that caught my eye: “knowing our ancestors and how they intersect with other communities in America will help us understand our present and begin the healing process in order to move towards the future.” 

I’m onboard.

If you go...

When: “Two Trains Running” plays generally Tuesday–Sunday, through Feb. 11

Where: Seattle Rep's Bagley Wright Theater at 155 Mercer St., Seattle

Ages: Best for high school and up (ages 14+). Note: The "n-word" is used frequently and there are allusions to sex.

Length: Run time is three hours with one intermission.

Cost: student tickets are $16; adult tickets range from $25–$85

Parking: Try one of the nearby parking garages a few blocks from Seattle Center.

TipUpcoming nights include post-play discussions, captions, audio-described and sign-interpreted shows.

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