15 Theatre Walk, Derby DE1 2NF

Black History Month Takes to the Stage: Two Trains Running at Derby Theatre

People of colour have made massive contributions to the social, political, and economic development of the UK, as well as to the fields of art, music, science, and literature. However, their significant achievements are often left uncelebrated and are a notable absence from the history books. Black History Month, which has been celebrated in the UK every October since the 1980s, aims to change that. By speaking up to challenge racism and share the stories of underrepresented communities, Black History Month encourages us to reflect on the diverse histories of those of African and Caribbean descent. Although Black History Month is now almost 40 years old in the UK, its message is still as relevant and important as ever.

Given the significance of the month of October, there has been no better time to visit Derby Theatre to see Two Trains Running, a modern classic of theatre from the pen of mixed-race playwright August Wilson. Wilson is best known for his depiction of the comic and tragic aspects of black American life in the twentieth century. Two Trains Running, the seventh in his series of plays exploring this theme, has rarely been performed in the UK, but award-winning director Nancy Wilson and her all black cast will be bringing it to life at Derby Theatre from 22nd - 26th October as part of a nationwide tour.

Two Trains Running Royal Derngate and Northampton review play

Synopsis

The year is 1969 and you have been transported to The Hill, one of Pittsburgh's poorest and toughest neighbourhoods. There, you meet seven restaurant regulars at their stomping ground, a diner owned by Memphis Lee which is in danger of being torn down due to the city's urban renewal plans. The characters, all African American, are invested in this restaurant and its future. As the play unfolds, the diner (and the rest of the block) is scheduled to be demolished, but even as the buildings of the community are collapsing, its spirit remains as strong as ever. The wealthy undertaker across the street encourages Memphis to accept his offer to buy the place from him at a reduced price, but Memphis stands his ground, determined to make the city pay him what the property is worth, refusing to be swindled out of his land as he was years before.

Two Trains Running Derby Theatre Review

The Cast

Anita-Joy Uwajeh, who played Risa, the diner's cook / waitress, gave a real standout performance on the night. Her emotional range was incredible and she gave the character real depth. I was particularly impressed by Uwajeh's performance during a scene where we learned that one of the central characters had passed away off-stage. Risa had been faultlessly strong and stubborn up until this point, but during this scene, her armour started to crack. Uwajeh conveyed this with great sensitivity, demonstrating the real layers to Risa's character. Uwajeh's performance was particularly impressive given that in general, she had less dialogue than her male counterparts. She often communicated Risa's thoughts and feelings through facial expressions and body language alone. She never fell out of character at any time, even when she was just in the background of a scene preparing food in the kitchen. I found her utterly convincing. Another excellent performance came from Michael Salami, who played Sterling Johnson, a newly released prisoner who was desperately searching for a job. Sterling was an excellently written character whose anguish at his jobless and penniless state was conveyed through his flitting between different moneymaking schemes, business proposals, and job seeking attempts. Salami captured this sense of distress and desperation expertly in his portrayal of the character.

August Wilson Two Trains Running Derby Theatre Review

My Thoughts

The total running time for Two Trains Running is roughly three hours (including an interval) but the vast majority of the play flew over. The entire thing is set in Memphis' diner and the play was definitely character driven rather than focusing on action, much of the real "action" happens off-stage. The start felt a little slow but once the viewer became accustomed to the format, the pace picked up. It was fascinating to see the themes of justice, courage, and persistence explored throughout the play. It was something that united all of the characters: Risa's heartbreaking way of controlling the way that men saw her through the scarring of her legs, Hambone refusing to allow a white man to determine the value of his work, and Memphis' unfaltering resolve not to accept a penny less for his diner than it was worth. The ending did pleasantly surprise me - I wasn't expecting the sale of Memphis' property to go the way it did, but I was happy with the outcome. Only Risa's ending made me feel a little disappointed. She had been so independent and resolute throughout the play and I felt that who she ended up with undermined this slightly.

There were a couple of instances of symbolism which I felt didn't quite land. Throughout the play, an off-stage character named Aunt Esther is frequently referred to. We learn from the dialogue that she lives upstairs behind a red door. A red door can be seen on top of the diner set and occasionally during the performance, the door would be lit up and it would open or close. The first time this occurred, it made sense because one of the characters was off to see Aunt Esther but on other occasions, didn't seem clear why the door motif was employed. Furthermore, on another occasion, the characters stopped their performance, the lights went down, some jazz music played, and they marched in a line across the set and back again, before the play was resumed. Again, the significance of this was lost on me but it certainly didn't ruin my enjoyment of the play.

In addition, there may have been a few teething problems when it came to the lighting and sound at this performance. During an especially tender scene between Risa and Sterling, the lights very suddenly and unexpectedly went up only to be lowered back down again, which seemed at odds with the mood of the action happening on stage. To the actors' credit, neither of them let on if there had been a mistake, so this may just have been an accidental flick of a switch by the lighting engineer.



My Star Rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Two Trains Running was definitely a performance that made you think. I am sure that there were many more layers to it than I was able to dissect with just one viewing. I think that if I had more of an awareness of the historical background to the play and knew a little more about Malcom X and his movement, which was referenced many times, I could have gotten even more out of it. Seeing an all black cast directed by a black female director was fantastic, a real win for diversity and representation in the theatre. The performance was of high quality and I would recommend it. 

What's the best thing that you've seen at the theatre recently? Let me know down below.

*My tickets to see Two Trains Running were provided free of charge, in exchange for a blog post review.

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