2/8: TRTC Back on Wilson’s Track

TRT-2trains-500x333Tony winner Chuck Cooper (behind counter) heads a seasoned ensemble cast in AUGUST WILSON’S TWO TRAINS RUNNING, the drama now onstage at Two River Theater. (Photo by Michal Daniel)

In an interview that appeared right here on the upperWETside last year, stage/screen actor and director  Ruben Santiago-Hudson told us, “Being involved with the work of August Wilson changes people. People of all colors, all religions, all backgrounds… he brings them into an arena and sends them out changed.”

The specialist in all things Wilson (a Tony winner for his performance in 1995’s Seven Guitars) was at Red Bank’s Two River Theater to oversee rehearsals for a new production of August Wilson’s Jitney, the ensemble drama that keynoted the late playwright’s development as a major voice in modern American theater — the kind who can justify getting his name above the title, and his picture on the poster. As the director so succinctly put it, “August Wilson IS the star.”

Set in a rundown Pittsburgh taxi station in the 1970s, Jitney was chronologically the eighth  play in what’s commonly known as Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle; an epic ten-part series that examines the African American experience in the 20th century — one snap-shotted decade at a time — in ways that are alternately tragic, comic, mystical, musical, realistic, hardbitten, hopeful, and maybe all of the above.

That acclaimed and extended run of Jitney found Santiago-Hudson assembling a top-notch cast highlighted by fellow Tony winner Chuck Cooper (who also co-starred in Two River Theater Company’s musical premiere In This House), along with Anthony Chisholm (who originated the role of Fielding and reprised it in Red Bank), plus Harvy Blanks, Roslyn Ruff and James A. Williams. All of these Wilson veterans are back on the Two River boards this month, as TRTC returns to Pittsburgh’s Hill District for a major new production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.

Set amid the social upheaval and forced “urban renewal” of the late 1960s — and playing out inside a shabby diner set design by Michael Carnahan — Two Trains unfolds as diner owner Memphis (Cooper) ponders the prospect of the city buying him out of his fast-fading business, home to a gallery of vivid local characters, and workplace of the embittered and elusive object of desire named Risa (Ruff). Among the members of the extended “diner family” are neighborhood undertaker West (Blanks), philosophical Holloway (Williams) — and apparent derelict Hambone (Chisholm), a character trapped with an obsession over some long-ago slight involving a promised payment of a ham.

Into this dreary tableau come a couple of characters portrayed by actors who are making their Two River debuts. Owiso Odera (who worked with the director in a San Francisco staging of Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean) plays Sterling, a young ex-convict with an optimistic set of dreams, if not the dollars to fulfill them — and John Earl Jelks (who was Tony nominated for playing an older version of that same Sterling in Wilson’s Radio Golf) appears as the slick numbers runner named Wolf.

Your upperWETside correspondent got delayed a bit by Two Trains Crossing at station stop Little Silver, but managed to pull into Red Bank for a whistle-stop interview with Owiso Odera. Mind the closing doors…

TwoTrainsDirector and August Wilson specialist Ruben Santiago-Hudson (center) returns to Red Bank for a TRTC production of Wilson’s TWO TRAINS RUNNING that features fellow Tony winner Chuck Cooper (left) and Two River first-timer Owiso Odera (right).

upperWETside: I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruben Santiago-Hudson in front of last year’s production of JITNEY; meeting many of the cast members that are returning for this show. I’m guilty of reflexively thinking of you as a “newcomer” to this crew, but it’s actually well known that you and Ruben have a working history, as do you and a couple of your castmates.

OWISO ODERA: Everybody’s worked with Ruben, and we all love August. You feel very safe in the hands of Ruben; he and I became good friends when we did Gem of the Ocean seven years ago. He’s like a mentor in many ways…whenever I’m in New York I call him. We talk about August a lot, and he helps me decide what to take on when I’m between jobs.

It was just a matter of time until we worked together again, and when he asked me if I wanted to do Two Trains in Red Bank, I jumped at the chance!

You probably couldn’t have wished a better role for yourself to make a splash with this audience than Sterling in TWO TRAINS. He’s a catalyst for much of what transpires here; one of the best parts for a younger actor in the Cycle.

There’s no real ‘best’ role in August Wilson; every character brings a different energy, a different point of view to drive the story. And when you look at the roles in his plays for African American men, you see that he’s written great parts for actors of all different ages. So I could wind up doing this play several times in my career, starting out as Sterling and coming back to it as Holloway.

Sterling, in this play, brings in a completely different energy. He represents self-empowerment, Black Power, entrepreneurial spirit…if you love August Wilson, he’s definitely one of those roles that’ll be on your list of things you want to do in your career.

Sterling is someone who’s an orphan, who got in trouble for taking part in a bank robbery. He’s looking for a place to belong…and there in that diner, he can be free. It’s easy to make him a caricature, but underneath he’s someone who needs a community.

The show’s not wanting for characters, surely, and one of the more interesting ones is Risa, the only woman on the stage…hers is not one of the biggest parts, but she makes her presence felt in ways that challenge the other characters in places. With the understanding that it’s probably one of the few roles you won’t wind up playing your career, how do you see her part in the proceedings?

August Wilson’s women are very complex…there’s not always a lot that’s apparent on the surface, but even when there are no women on the stage, there’s always women. The men are always talking about women.

Risa is the center of the play…she runs the diner; it would go out of business if she wasn’t there. She does things her own way and she takes care of everyone. She represents a woman in each male character’s life — and Sterling isn’t the only character who’d like to think that he has a chance to be with her.

Roslyn Ruff has a private process to her work…her work is so specific and so powerful. She’s one of the reasons why it’s such a special experience to be working on this production.

Now, being based on the West Coast, this represents your first time on this stage — although you’ve gotten in a pretty impressive amount of projects in New York, Boston and DC. Do you find it necessary to make a lot of trips east, in order to be a part of the stage productions that most interest you?

Personally, I love living in LA. You have to make your home where you’re happiest, but the days of being strictly a New York or a Los Angeles actor are past. You go where your work takes you, and for me right now it’s here at this exceptional theater in Red Bank. I’d love to come back here, over and over. I’m amazed by everyone here, from the front office to the shop.

Of course, nobody at Two River is being so bold as to announce a grand ten-year plan to produce the entirety of The Pittsburgh Cycle — but we are well on our way, and I get the feeling that if all continues to go well, we’ll continue to see more explorations of the Wilson legacy in years to come. If you had your druthers, what plays would you be most anxious to take on with this company?

Right off, I’d love to do Joe Turner’s Come and Gone — that was August’s favorite out of all his plays. I’d definitely do Gem of the Ocean again — I feel a strong connection to that one. Seven Guitars…I’d come back here in an instant for a chance to do any of them!

And I get the feeling that Ruben and this group of actors will assemble like the Avengers or the Justice League, whenever and wherever there’s a call to do justice to the Wilson legacy. 

It’s a loose company…we’re all united by and dedicated to our love for August. He is our modern Shakespeare…his canon serves to connect American history to African history, to African American history.

It’s such a thrill and an honor to be part of this company — and a pleasure, too. I understand how a little creative tension can be a good thing in some situations, but I’m of the opinion that tension is a thing best served onstage. You can only achieve that spark if there’s a certain amount of trust between the actors. And when it comes to August Wilson…understand and trust the language; you will find the music.

August Wilson’s Two Trains Running continues in previews with performances on Tuesday (8 pm), Wednesday (7 pm) and Thursday (8 pm); opening on Friday, February 8 (that show is SOLD OUT) and running through March 3 with a mix of matinee and evening performances. Tickets ($24 – $42 adults) and details on special shows and related events — including a special salute to August Wilson at Middletown Township Public Library on the evening of February 12 — can be obtained by calling (732)345-1400 or taking it here.

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