“I want my ham!” a fellow named Hambone shouts as he stands near the entrance of Memphis Lee’s diner in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. He pauses, gathers energy, then shouts again, louder and more intense this time, in a voice that could shatter steel: “I WANT MY HAM!”
In Two Trains Running, PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s new revival at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center of August Wilson’s majestic and surprisingly funny 1990 play, Hambone’s been loudly wanting his ham every day for nine and a half years, since the shopkeeper across the street from the diner promised him one for some manual labor and then offered him a chicken instead, saying he hadn’t done the work well enough to earn the ham.
Hambone, played with brilliant physical intensity and attention to detail by Tim Golden, knows better: a deal’s a deal, and he carried out his end. So every morning he goes to the shopkeeper and demands his ham, and every morning the shopkeeper offers him a chicken instead, and every morning Hambone refuses the chicken and walks across the street to Memphis’ diner and shouts “I want my ham!,” and then sits down while the waitress, Risa, gets him a cup of coffee and maybe a bowl of soup.
We are a people made of rituals, and some rituals stick stronger than others.
Two Trains Running, like all of Wilson’s cycle of plays about African American life in the 20th century, is filled with symbolism and metaphor and tall-tale exaggeration, and it’s structured so musically that you can almost imagine the cast singing it. Director William Earl Ray’s PassinArt actors play the thing a bit like a good blues band, delivering their lines in an array of timbres, tones, and speeds, from the quizzical uptick of veteran Wrick Jones’s Memphis to the mirthful jangle of Kenneth Dembo’s bookie Wolf to the deliberative modulations of Jerry Foster’s undertaker/real-estate player West. If Golden’s booming Hambone holds down the bass line, Jones’s rat-a-tat-tat in Memphis’ angry or exasperated moments provides the snares. James Dixon as the young just-out-of-prison swain Sterling is the slide trombone noodling around the staccato cornet jabs of Cycerli Ash’s Risa, who skitters away a little closer every time she hears that sound. On opening night Saturday director Ray was on book as the old-timer Holloway, having just taken over the role. His voice was still developing: keyboards, maybe, filling in the chords.
Two Trains Running is set in 1969, and it is played out against a backdrop of urban renewal, that dystopian code term for the destruction of city neighborhoods (almost always poorer and ethnic ones) in the name of progress. I’ve been watching Treme, the HBO series set in New Orleans after the catastrophic floods that wiped out whole sections of the city after the dikes burst when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and the unseen portions of the Hill District, the places outside of Memphis’ diner but affecting everything that goes on inside it, remind me of that: a culture, deeply wounded, forever changed, trying to come back, or at the least to adapt before moving on. This was about the time that urban renewal was also ripping the heart out of Portland’s traditional black neighborhoods, a history that of late has shifted and accelerated with the rise of urban renewal’s gussied-up first cousin, gentrification. Before you know it, the gravy’s gone upscale and there’s no ham to be had.
Memphis’ diner, all spit-shined and gleaming with chrome and red Naugahyde in designer Aran Graham’s comfortably come-hither set, is something of an ark bobbing above this storm, although whether it’s an ark of safety remains unsteadily open to question. The city wants to buy it to complete its clear-cutting of the neighborhood, and is threatening eminent domain, and West wants to buy it from Memphis to negotiate with the city on his own, and Memphis is having none of it. If he has to sell, he’s going to get his price, and his price is $25,000, and he won’t agree to anything less: that 25 grand is his non-negotiable ham.
The possibility of violence and disaster seems just around every corner in Wilson’s expansive and beautifully composed script, but it is never an inevitability: It’s a background thrum, an unlit keg, something you live with because you have no choice. It could be a big boom, something truly traumatic, or something lesser but slowly traumatizing, like the drip-drip-drip of water on someone’s forehead, like Memphis’ constant shouting at and belittling of Risa, which is just business as usual and all the more wince-inducing for it. Without making a point of it, Wilson makes a point of it, and neither Jones nor Ash holds back from the humiliation.
Yet there is also great generosity and companionship in this little community, a sense of being united against conditions largely outside its control. Director Ray’s production captures the warmth and humor of the thing, from the little love story sweetly teased out between Sterling and Risa to the tall-tale joys of droll storytelling. Wilson’s great recurring character Aunt Esther shows up (or rather, doesn’t show up: she’s talked about constantly, but we never see her), and there is endless speculation about her age – 322 seems agreed upon, but it could be 349, although she looks to one person to be 500, and to another not a day over 112.
PassinArt’s production has great heart, and a dash of glee, and a rollicking pleasure in the sheer art of storytelling that does nothing to blunt its sense of truth and consequences. “Freedom is heavy,” as Memphis puts it. “You got to put your shoulder to freedom.”
We all want our ham when it’s our due. At some point the justice of it matters more than anything else on earth. If it arrives warm and juicy from August Wilson’s kitchen with a side of sweet potatoes and a mess of greens, all the better.
PassinArt’s Two Trains Running continues through April 1 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. Ticket and schedule information here.