August Wilson’s American Century Cycle is a collection of 10 plays each covering a different decade of the black American experience from 1900 to 1990. The seventh instalment, Two Trains Running, is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1960s – the decade that saw the prosperity of the previous two decades quickly disappear and the arrival of an urban redevelopment programme.
Local diner owner Memphis (Andrew French) is nostalgic for those times. His doughty spirit just about manages to keep his place alive, but business isn’t what it used to be. There was a time he could get through four crates of chicken in a week; these days, he can barely get through one. Business is slightly better for West, the local undertaker (the magnificent Geoff Aymer) but that’s a different sign of the same times. Meanwhile, Sterling (Michael Salami), the plucky optimist who’s fresh out of the penitentiary, uses his entrepreneurial spirit to build the foundations of a better future for himself and his community.
The story of the Hill is also told through Frankie Bradshaw’s diner design. A wrecking ball hangs poised for action while protest posters call for an end to gentrification, desegregated schools and low-income housing. Smooth jazz wafts into the diner through the open door – a nod to legends Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, who frequented the area in more prosperous days.
Director Nancy Medina, winner of the Royal Theatrical Support Trust’s Sir Peter Hall award, works magic and the excellent ensemble delivers Wilson’s characters with respect and dignity.