Two Trains Running (PAST Productions Columbus – Columbus, OH)

We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it; we can either settle for the way things are, or stand up to actively change the narrative. That’s the lesson I learned while watching how the people in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running responded to adversity; some caved immediately, others balked but eventually gave in, and a few others continued to fight for what was right, even when their words fell upon deaf ears. This PAST Productions Columbus presentation is one of a series of works by Mr. Wilson being produced throughout this year in a partnership with Short North Stage funded by PNC Arts Alive.

Two Trains Running was first performed in 1990 and ran on Broadway for four months in 1992. The play in set in Pittsburgh at the end of the 1960s inside Lee’s Restaurant. Memphis Lee is the owner, and the city is exercising its right of eminent domain to take possession of his restaurant. Memphis is determined to get $25,000 for his place, even though its glory days are long past. The city is supposed to make an offer of fair market value for the building, but no one believes Memphis will get what he demands because he is black. Lee’s Restaurant is a hangout for several men in the neighborhood: Wolf, a bookie; Sterling, recently paroled and looking for work; Holloway, a retired painter; West, a wealthy funeral home director; and Hambone, a mentally-challenged man. Risa is Memphis’ waitress, far more interested in chatting with the fellas than doing her job, much to Memphis’ chagrin.


Photo: Patrick Evans
Throughout the course of the play we learn about how the Hill District where the restaurant is located was once an active, prosperous neighborhood; now it is stagnant with few opportunities and a general malaise of unrest. Many people play the numbers, hoping that their number may come up, which is so unrealistic that it seems logical compared to trusting that their lots in life will improve any other way. The optimism brought by the civil rights movement earlier in the decade has evolved into a more aggressive feeling towards the great social and economic divide between white and black people. Still, the people at Lee’s Restaurant still find plenty to laugh about, their sense of humor about the situation and their faith in a higher power being the support they need to keep going.


Photo: Patrick Evans – (left to right) Tony Roseboro (Memphis), Vincent L. Mason (West), Lisa C. Shepherd (Risa), Scott Porter (Sterling), and Truman Winbush Jr. (Holloway)
Standouts in this talented ensemble are Tony Roseboro as Memphis, playing the determined business owner with nerve; Mr. Roseboro never makes a false move, and he’s the kind of flawed hero you want to root for; Lisa C. Shepherd is Risa, Memphis’ waitress and the object of much of his scorn; Ms. Shepherd isn’t an easy nut to crack, but when she allows her emotions to bubble to the surface she’s electric to watch; Vincent L. Mason plays West, the funeral director; Mr. Mason speaks deliberately and with care in a way that lets the audience know that he’s aware of how his community holds his success in high regard while also relaying how that kind of pressure can be stifling; last but not least is David Johnson as Hambone, the man-child who constantly shouts, “I want my ham!” Mr. Johnson is hilarious without turning Hambone into a gross caricature of a challenged individual; his continued pursuit of the ham that the grocer cheated him out of nearly ten years before is a comforting daily distraction to the neighborhood. When circumstances around Hambone shift, Ms. Shepherd takes full advance of the moment, her plea on his behalf quite heartfelt and sincere.

The title Two Trains Running is a reverence to Memphis’ hometown which he remembers for the two trains than ran there; he might as well be referencing the two paths he could take in regards to the sale of his business: accept less or fight for more. His fight is akin to that of Cervantes’ Don Quixote battling windmills, a fool’s folly a la “The Impossible Dream,” and this is one area in which Memphis and Hambone are matched; they both fight for what is just and right no matter the catcalls or pressure from the crowd. There’s a lot to respect there and with which many of us can identify; all of this is clear without being overstated by director Patricia Wallace-Winbush.

“Language in this play contains racial epithets that may offend some audience members,” is printed along the bottom on the show’s program; I rolled my eyes at first because I thought it was an unnecessary warning. Are we so politically correct that everything needs a warning label? That being said, the “N” word is used a lot in this play, but it is integral to the story. The “N” word is used as an endearment as well as to cut others down to size, and its pervasiveness is effective in demonstrating a community in which people often tear each other down through their words rather than build each other up, partly I suppose because that is what had been done to them all of their lives. This play is set in a time before rap music and a younger generation reclaimed the word for use with a different intention; here its use still has bite, and the black girlfriend I attended with even mentioned at intermission that it was a bit much even for her. I take that as showing the word’s power and effectiveness of its use in this piece.


Photo: Patrick Evans – (top left to right) Guy Jones (Wolf), Vincent L. Mason (West), Tony Roseboro (Memphis), Truman Winbush Jr. (Holloway) – (bottom left to right) David Johnson (Hambone), Lisa C. Shepherd (Risa), and Scott Porter (Sterling)

Two Trains Running is the kind of play that takes its time to unfold (running well over two and a half hours including an intermission), painting a vivid picture of a specific place and time with characters that are true to themselves and interact naturally. What the piece lacks in plot it more than makes up for in message: Keep fighting for what is right. This is a sentiment that will never go out of style, and one that we should all remember to live by.

***1/4 out of ****

Two Trains Running continues through to March 19th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at and tickets purchased via

Zooman and the Sign (PAST Productions Columbus – Columbus, OH)


The collective power of intimidation and fear and the effect it has on a neighborhood is explored in Past Productions Columbus’s production of Charles Fuller’s Zooman and the Sign. First performed in 1980, the play is about a family whose little girl is murdered in front of their home by a stray bullet shot by a thug (“Zooman”) known within the community. Fearing retaliation by Zooman as well as getting involved with the police, the neighbors who witnessed the murder refuse to speak up to aid the family in catching the murderer. The father, upset by the betrayal of his friends, erects a sign calling out his neighbors for standing in the way of justice.


Photo: Patrick Evans – Demia Kandi (Rachel) and Ricardo Jones (Reuben)
Standouts in the cast are Demia Kandi as Rachel, the mother; Ricardo Jones as Reuben, the father; and Tony Roseboro as Emmett Tate, Reuben’s brother. Ms. Kandi and Mr. Jones are believable as a couple grieving the loss of their daughter while also struggling with their relationship. Ms. Kandi brings raw emotion in moments that quickly bubble to the surface organically, like when she talks about her daughter recently having had her first period; she begins the play almost stoic with shock, building to a finale in which she can no longer keep her feelings bottled up. Mr. Jones is solid as the father who regrets the absences from his family, but who stands unafraid of calling out the cowardice of his neighbors; he lays bare his feelings with vulnerability in a way that is rare to see in a man with such a dominant presence. Mr. Roseboro kickstarts every scene that he is in, his quips quick and often quite funny, bringing touches of humor to a deadly serious topic. The rest of the cast is good too, but it is these three performances that will compel you to sit up and pay attention.


Photo: Patrick Evans – Tony Roseboro (Emmett)
Director Truman Winbush Jr. keeps the pace consistent, not allowing anyone to wallow too long in a moment. At under two hours with an intermission, the story has just enough time to unfold without feeling rushed or languid, and emotional histrionics are kept at bay. There is plenty of pain and heartache in this story about the senseless murder of an innocent child, but it is the fear on the part of the community and how it only serves to give power to the wrong people that is the focus. Mr. Winbush makes sure both parts of the story are being told and are clear.


Photo: Patrick Evans – (left to right) Ricardo Jones (Reuben), Demia Kandi (Rachel), Sean Winbush (Victor), and William Winbush (Zooman)
By the time Zooman and the Sign reaches its inevitable conclusion, it was apparent to me that this cycle of violence has no winners, only victims. It’s hard to say at what fork in the road a different path is taken or why, but Zooman represents so many youths, then and now, who lack the empathy to see that they are part of the problem; empathy being something that they never learned to feel because they never had it given to them. Thirty-five years after it premiered, this play still has a relevant message, one of violence not being the answer to violence, and how “not wanting to get involved” only adds to the problem – and helps the wrong people. This isn’t a “black” issue, despite having an black cast and creative team; this is a human issue, and one that Past Productions Columbus should be commended for exploring in this strong production.

*** out of ****

Zooman and and the Sign continues through to November 7th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at