Tag Archives: Jermaine A. Gamble

BNS Productions’ “Two Trains Running” Runs at Full Steam With a Deep Cast

Review: Two Trains Running

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Like all of the other plays I’ve seen in August Wilson’s epic Pittsburgh Cycle ­ and I’ve now seen nine of the 10 – Two Trains Running is about community struggle and personal redemption. Each of the dramas digs into one of decades of the 20th century, and after Brand New Sheriff began its Wilson explorations with Jitney and the 1950s, their sophomore effort at Spirit Square takes us into the turbulent 1960s.

With so much memorable social and civil rights upheaval in that decade, not to mention the horrifying Birmingham church bombing and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and MLK, it’s no surprise that community struggles are more at the forefront of this Wilson work than the others. As it was in the ‘50s, when we looked on the city through Jitney, Pittsburgh is continuing its predatory campaign to demolish the predominantly black Hill District in the name of urban renewal. After Becker’s gypsy cab depot in Jitney, the city is moving in on Memphis Lee’s Restaurant.

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Another young man is returning from incarceration and trying start a new life – but not quietly this time. Sterling is handing out leaflets for an upcoming Black Power rally and befriending Hambone, a mentally handicapped person who was cheated years ago by the white grocer across the street. At the same time, Sterling is seeking out a job or at least a lead from everyone else he speaks to at the restaurant. Standing up for other black people cheated by a white system – and for himself – Sterling is clearly a powder keg that will soon go off.

Memphis estimates that he’ll be back in prison in three weeks. As the days pass and he sees more of Sterling, who grabs whatever he can, Memphis will revise that estimate downwards.

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Sterling teaches Hambone a Black Power slogan, but Memphis isn’t so easily swayed. It’s the central issue for black people of that time, especially here in 1969 after the MLK murder. Do they wait patiently and peacefully for what is rightfully theirs, marching and petitioning to make their wishes known – or do they resort to the same kind of violence that kept their people down? Memphis insists on doing things the right way, holding out for a fair price from the city for his property, firing the craven lawyer who advises him to cave.

Looking at Memphis’s regular customers, you’ll find additional evidence that MLK’s ideas didn’t die with him. Nobody intends to join the rally. A more popular road to self-fulfillment is winning the daily numbers game at odds of 600-1, and it’s Wolf who haunts the place, taking all bets, often through unauthorized use of the restaurant’s phone. The sagely and cynical Holloway will play a number as readily as Memphis or Sterling, but to change your life, Holloway recommends a visit to Aunt Ester, the 322-year-old soothsayer who lurks behind a faithfully guarded red door in an alley down the block.

Risa, the troubled waitress who has scarred herself, disparages the men who throw their money away on the numbers. To her mind, they’d get a better return from their quarters if they just dropped them in the jukebox. Until recently, she’s been a follower of the Prophet Samuel, but currently her rock and redeemer is lying in state across the street at West’s Funeral Home. She has no desire to see the man in a casket, but Sterling goes through the long lines waiting to see the Prophet and snatches flowers from the site and presents them to Risa, whose head he’s trying to turn.

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It’s another illustrative instance of Sterling flouting decorum and convention. Why should her qualms get in the way of enjoying a few beautiful flowers that would die and be trashed in the next couple of days if she weren’t caring for them? West certainly doesn’t notice or mind, Sterling maintains. It’s true. When West comes by every day, he’s looking for Risa to serve him another cup of coffee and Memphis to accept his latest lowball offer for the restaurant.

The parallel rituals are significant, two of the sparkplugs that keep Wilson’s drama humming. The grocer fends off Hambone’s daily demand for the ham that was promised to him, and Memphis refuses to allow West to steal his property away for a bargain price.

BNS and director Corlis Hayes, in their second Wilson outing at Duke Energy Theater, are getting really good at this. Although smaller than the design the playwright describes, James Duke’s set captures the spirit of the time beautifully, perfectly calibrating the restaurant’s waning appeal so that we see it as a warm, welcoming place. Or at least we can imagine it that way, for Tim Bradley as Memphis is not at all the deferential restauranteur, arguing with customers, barking at Wolf for running numbers on his phone, bragging about duping West, bossing Risa unnecessarily, and expressing general disdain for his lazy people.

That’s all very much on the page, so Bradley finds ways to keep us empathizing with Memphis. Hayes and LeShea Stukes have far more latitude with Risa as we watch the waitress going about her job and reacting to various advances. Stukes plays her as sullen and cynical, allowing Risa’s resentment of her boss’s scolding tone to occasionally surface. Seeing her smile late in Act 2 is like seeing the sun come out after fives days of stormy weather. By the time that happens, we may suspect that the jukebox being out of order is troubling Risa as much as Prophet Samuel’s death and her boss’s bossiness.

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Devin Clark struts around as Wolf like an arrogant sleazeball, but there are more depths, contours, and vulnerabilities to him than the iconic Sportin’ Life as he talks about himself and strikes out with Risa. Ramsey Lyric’s costume designs certainly help Clark strut his stuff, but they also help us to chart Jonavan Adams’s progress in his portrayal of Sterling, fresh out of prison. Hayes and Adams have worked together before on Wilson’s plays, so they both know the strength, the brashness, and the seething frustrations of these strapping young men. Trust me, Adams’ work as Sterling is even more powerful and nuanced than his 2017 outing as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

BNS continues to have admirable depth in their Wilson lineups. You can understand why Jermaine A. Gamble would gravitate to a role as salty as Holloway, whose sharp observations are mixed with a strong belief in the supernatural, expressed in an unwavering advocacy of Aunt Ester’s powers. Gamble makes Holloway a reasonable man, good reason for having this kind of restaurant around. He’s the neighborhood. But the disruptive Hambone, restricted to little more than one repeated line, wouldn’t jump out at you as a plum role to audition for. Dominic Weaver makes it one in a performance of astonishing intensity and authenticity.

It was probably a group effort to make Weaver look so frightfully grubby as Hambone, but Lyric and Hayes draw my kudos for the sensation West makes each time he enters. Wilson prescribes that the undertaker is always dressed in an all-black outfit, including black gloves that he wears indoors, but designers only add a black hat in about half the productions I’ve tracked on YouTube – and none of them are as imposing as the formal chapeau Lyric chooses for Sultan Omar El-Amin. Hayes layers onto this formality, decreeing that El-Amin must meticulously spread a napkin across his lap at each sitting.

With such outré ammo, El-Amin steals each of his scenes without raising his voice to a level that might lead you to seriously suspect that he doubts his own power. By the manner he holds his cup and saucer, you’d think he was at high tea! From a man who has specialized in portrayals of angry, resentful, and mixed-up young men, El-Amin’s confidently restrained performance as an established 60-year-old widower is a stunner.

Two Trains Running at Spirit Square is a good place to climb aboard the complete Pittsburgh Cycle that BNS is planning to present in coming seasons. You won’t miss a thing because BNS is planning to reprise its previous production of Jitney in May. Then they plan to present Radio Golf, the final drama in the Cycle – and Wilson’s last completed play – next season. Two Trains is not the last stop, but you’ll need to catch it this week before it closes.

 

Landing the Next LeBron Is Just Step One in “King Liz”

Review: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Wheeling and dealing, trading on her feminine wiles, sports agent Liz Rico is a dynamic dynamo in Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz. To keep her edge, Liz has to lie and cheat, sweet-talk and scold, soothing some mighty male egos while knowing her shit better than any of them. She must fight tooth-and-claw for every client and every dollar while keeping her calculating cool.

In the heat of an NBA draft session, Liz hopes to land her hotshot high school point guard, Freddie Luna, with the New York Knicks. Playing all the contingencies, Liz makes promises to the New York Nets that she doesn’t intend keep, works the phone further to keep the Knicks interested, and fervently prays that some other team doesn’t mess up her schemes by snatching up her player – and ruining her cred with everybody she’s been dealing with.

Including her boss, Mr. Candy, who has been dangling the prospect of letting Liz take over the company when he retires.

After the draft, Liz’s trials have barely begun. Coach Jones isn’t on the same page as the Knicks’ GM on Freddie’s readiness for the NBA, so the rookie’s place in the starting lineup and his actual playing time are both unknowns. Further threatening Freddie’s marketability are the kid’s impoverished, violent past, his hair-trigger temper, his déclassé friends, and his inexperience in the media spotlight.

The current Three Bone Theatre production at Spirit Square has a couple of extra déclassé elements that don’t chime well with Coppel’s script. The first is Three Bone’s budget, which doesn’t allow set designer Ryan Maloney to come anywhere close to simulating the office at a high-powered sports agency that boasts such big-name clients as James Harden, Kevin Love, and Carmelo Anthony.

Though she undoubtedly has the power and charisma for the full range of King Liz, I sometimes felt that Shar Marlin needed to be more of a smooth operator to completely define her. Having directed Marlin’s stunning performance last year in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Corlis Hayes had to be supremely confident that this force of nature was equal to tackling Liz. But Hayes doesn’t altogether curb Marlin’s inclination to carry elements of the blues divas she has played – Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey – over to a more modern powerhouse who has the finesse to wow a boardroom.

I’m not sure that a big wheel like Liz needs to do quite so much yelling working the phones and bossing her assistant. Less would have counted more.

Granted, the streets and the projects loom large in Liz’s background, allowing her to empathize with Freddie, but if Marlin were finding them in Liz rather than Rainey, her manner would be more consistently elegant. Yet we need to acknowledge that Marlin nearly makes Liz a cohesive person despite the fact that Coppel makes her excessively chameleonic. Coppel does have that tendency. If you think Liz flits from persona to persona in the blink of an eye, wait to till you hear about her board of directors’ flipflops in the final scenes.

The script only takes us back to 2015, when Phil Jackson was GM at the Knicks, but Hayes manages to accent the #MeToo elements of the story, encouraging Tim Huffman to remain a blowhard as Mr. Candy while adding a sprinkling of Harvey Weinstein sleaziness. Costume designer Ramsey Lyric puts an exclamation point on Mariana Bracciale’s transformation as Gabby Fuentes, Liz’s ambitious assistant, making sure we see how much more willing she is to play ball with Candy.

Marlin fares better outside the office, strategically captivating Coach Jones without giving in or quashing his desires. Hooking Freddie and keeping him in line requires even more virtuosic hairpin turns from Liz, so Marlin gets to show the agent’s wiliness until Freddie breaks loose from her control, exposing her doubts and insecurities. He can’t control himself, so how can she?

Although Sultan Omar El-Amin doesn’t boast the physicality of a point guard sporting the stats of a latter-day LeBron James, he has proven himself to be a master of youthful roles that require resentfulness and volatility. Once we get past his lack of size, muscles, and tattoos, El-Amin grows on us, sparking empathy and frustration with equal force. Jermaine A. Gamble has played his share of brooding youths recently, so it’s gratifying to see how convincingly he ages here as Coach Jones, adding a hint of a limp to give his mellow pursuit of Liz extra poignancy. His put-downs of Freddie hardly qualify as tough love – kindness is an unaffordable luxury when your job with a perennial losing team is on the line.

The wildcard in Coppel’s scenario is Barbara Flowers, a TV host that Liz is counting on to help her repair Freddie’s damaged image after he goes off the rails at a postgame interview. Disdaining the obvious prompt to do a Barbara Walters imitation, Susan Ballard initially does give us the impression that Flowers will toss Freddie one softball question after another on her show as Liz and Coach Jones sit beside him, holding his hand. But when Flowers discards Liz’s playbook and goes rogue, Ballard makes her a hard-nosed journalist asking tough hardball questions, way beyond Walters cordiality and a fair distance beyond civility.

It’s in these interview scenes that Coppel’s penchant for abrupt surprises works best. Freddie has definite rough edges, but the media can grow cruel fangs when they smell blood. In a stressful stew of crisis and tantalizing ambitions, Liz must reassess the consequences of her goals and who she wants to be.