Seattle Rep’s TWO TRAINS RUNNING: Beyond the Theatre

August Wilson Way, a pedestrian walkway at Seattle Center. (Photo by Curtis Cronn, flickr)

Here in Seattle we claim playwright August Wilson as one of our own, even though he was born in Pittsburgh and spent only 15 years (from 1990 until his death in 2005) here. But it was here, in the basement of his Capitol Hill house, where he completed his magnificent Pittsburgh Cycle (sometimes also called the Twentieth Century Pittsburgh Cycle). It was here where he worked with Seattle Repertory Theatre to produce all ten plays in the cycle. It is here, in Seattle, where a lovely walkway, just south of the Seattle Rep (along the vacated Republican Street between Warren Ave N. and 2nd Ave. North) is known as August Wilson Way.

Two Trains Running, which opens next Friday at the Seattle Rep, premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1990 and then went on to the Huntington Theatre in Boston and, in 1991, at the Seattle Rep with Laurence Fishburne. We’re excited to welcome this production back to Seattle.

The play’s promotional description is especially timely, and alarming, even if set in another era:

There’s a new president in the White House, and racial tensions are on the rise. No, it’s not 2017, it’s 1969. At a critical moment in the Civil Rights Movement, Memphis is forced to consider selling his restaurant to the city of Pittsburgh as urban planning eats away at his beloved neighborhood. Featuring a captivating slice-of-life cast of characters, Two Trains Running is celebrated playwright August Wilson’s portrait of a defining moment in American history.

Reading about Wilson and his influences is enlightening, and even a casual interest brings a reader/thinker to a new view on literature, art, and poetry. He often talked about the “Four B’s” that fueled his work: the blues, Borges (Jorges Luis Borges), Bearden (artist Romare Bearden) and Baraka (playwright Amiri Baraka). In a 1999 interview in the Paris Review, Wilson said what he gained from each: “From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.”

DVD cover: Photo of August Wilson and documentary title "August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand"There is no shortage of background information on August Wilson. Start with this History Link essay by Jim Kershner, then check out the DVD August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, a PBS American Masters’ production (you can see excerpts online at PBS).  Next take a look at Seattle Rep’s Two Trains Running: Beyond the Theatre, a list with some choice reads by Wilson’s beloved B’s (Borges, Bearden and Baraka, not to mention James Baldwin, who often made it into his conversations on the power of words), as well as Twentieth-century Cycle Plays: A Readers Companion by Sanford Sternlicht.

August Wilson is one of our nation’s most important playwrights. Get to know — or revisit — his plays; take in Two Trains Running if you can, and some time when you’re down at the Seattle Center, take a stroll down August Wilson Way.

~ posted by Linda J.


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