RED BANK: TRTC ON TRACK WITH ‘TWO TRAINS’

The cast and set of AUGUST WILSON’S TWO TRAINS RUNNING, now onstage at Two River Theater. Below, actor Chuck Cooper. (Photos by Michal Daniel)

By TOM CHESEK

In an interview with redbankgreen last year, stage/screen actor and director  Ruben Santiago-Hudson told us, “Being involved with the work of August Wilson changes people. People of all colors, all religions, all backgrounds… he brings them into an arena and sends them out changed.”

At the time, the specialist in all things Wilson – a Tony winner for his performance in 1995’s Seven Guitars) –  was at Red Bank’s Two River Theater to oversee rehearsals for a new production of August Wilson’s Jitney. That acclaimed and extended run found Santiago-Hudson assembling a top-notch cast highlighted by fellow Tony winner Chuck Cooper – who also co-starred in Two River Theater Company’s musical premiere In This House – along with Anthony Chisholm, Harvy Blanks, Roslyn Ruff and James A. Williams.

All of these Wilson veterans are back on the Two River boards this month, as TRTC returns to Pittsburgh’s Hill District for a major new production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.

Set amid the social upheaval and forced “urban renewal” of the late 1960s — and playing out in a shabby diner set-designed by Michael Carnahan — Two Trains unfolds as eatery owner Memphis (Cooper) ponders the prospect of the city buying him out of his fast-fading business, home to a gallery of vivid local characters, and workplace of the embittered and elusive object of desire named Risa (Ruff).

Into this dreary tableau come a couple of characters portrayed by actors  making their Two River debuts. Owiso Odera, who worked with the director in a San Francisco staging of Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, plays Sterling, a young ex-convict with an optimistic set of dreams, if not the dollars to fulfill them, and John Earl Jelks, who was Tony nominated for playing an older version of that same Sterling in Wilson’s Radio Golf, appears as the slick numbers runner named Wolf.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen got delayed a bit by Two Trains Crossing at station stop Little Silver, but managed to pull into Red Bank for a whistle-stop interview with Owiso Odera. Mind the closing doors…

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AN EXTENDED RIDE FOR TRTC’s ‘JITNEY’

Tony winner Chuck Cooper (right) appears with J. Bernard Calloway in the Two River Theater Company production of JITNEY — and sticks around to star in IN THIS HOUSE next month. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

In August Wilson’s ensemble drama Jitney, the cantankerous cabbie Turnbo admonishes his call-in “trips” with a warning that they’d better be ready when he gets there, ’cause he ain’t waiting.

That said, if you’re worried that you might not make it to a performance of the critically acclaimed play in Red Bank, the folks at Two River Theater Company want to assure you that they’ll keep the motor running for you.

The show now onstage under the direction of Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson — an offering described by Sledger reviewer (and dean of NJ drama critics) Peter Filichia as “magnificent” in his recent review and as “vibrant” by Anita Gates in the New York Times — has just announced an additional four performances between Thursday, February 23 and Saturday, February 25. That’s good news for anyone looking to catch up with a production that some have branded a worthy candidate for a New York engagement in the near future — although it could be potentially exhausting news for one busy cast member.

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A ‘JITNEY’ TO THE BIG TIME FOR TRTC

Ruben Santiago-Hudson announces JITNEY at the Two River Theater last spring, as Greg Brown and Rona Figueroa (of TRTC’s production of JACQUES BREL) look on. (Click to enlarge)

By TOM CHESEK

The scene is the storefront dispatch office of an unlicensed gypsy cab service in Pittsburgh’s Hill District — a neighborhood unserved by the city’s major taxi companies, and an unlikely setting for one of the truly game-changing works of the modern theater.

When he wrote Jitney in the late 1970s, August Wilson was a largely self-educated impresario who came from far outside the theatrical and academic establishments to found his own shoestring stage troupe in the Hill District. What he didn’t yet realize was that this short-on-plot, long-on-vivid-characters ensemble drama would develop into the cornerstone of a project that would see its author hailed by many as the greatest American playwright of the last 50 years.

Before his 2005 death from liver cancer, Wilson managed to complete the ambitious work that would serve as his legacy: the Pittsburgh Cycle, a set of ten plays — each one set in a different decade — that encapsulate the African-American experience in the 20th century in ways that are tragic, comic, mystical, musical, realistic, hardbitten, hopeful and, in the case of Jitney, maybe all of the above.

Beginning with a just-added matinee preview on Sunday, January 29, Two River Theater Company makes its first foray into Wilson’s world as Jitney takes the stage for a three-week run. Heading a heavyweight ensemble of nine professional players is Tony winner (for The Life) Chuck Cooper as Becker, boss of the dispatch depot and a man whose relationship with his recently paroled son Booster (J. Bernard Calloway of Broadway’s Memphis) boils over into violence. Anthony Chisholm, who won an Obie as Fielding in the play’s original Off Broadway production, reprises the role of the alcoholic ex-tailor here — and the frankly awesome cast is rounded out by Harvy Blanks, Brandon J. Dirden, Roslyn Ruff, Ray Anthony Thomas, James A. Williams and Allie Woods Jr.

Most exciting of all is the identity of the director attached to this project — Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a longtime friend and professional associate of August Wilson who won a Tony for his acting in Wilson’s Seven Guitars (and who went on to co-star in Gem of the Ocean as well as direct numerous Wilson revivals). The busy stage and screen pro, who turned playwright for his autobiographical Lackawanna Blues (and who’s also familiar from three seasons of Castle, a TV series in which his character was rather disconcertingly bumped off), has been busily overseeing rehearsals in Red Bank even as he continues his current Broadway stint in the Alicia Keys-produced Stick Fly.

The Drama Desk at redbankgreen managed to get in a few minutes with Santiago-Hudson as he jitney’d his way between two high profile projects.

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