You can read this amazing interview with the director of Two Trains Running, Nancy Medina, who talks about the play and the production behind it. Two Trains Running will be coming to CAST this October so make sure to book online on their website to see this masterpiece of a play.
Words: Nancy Medina
Photography: Two Trains Running
What initially drew you towards Two Trains Running?
I loved the characters and location in which it was set. It is 1969 in Pittsburgh, PA, and we meet seven African American characters in a restaurant which is in danger of being torn down due to the city’s urban renewal plans. All the characters in the play are invested in this restaurant and its future. Most of the characters have come from the South and as the story unfolds we come to understand the reasons why many fled, escaping terrorism and seeking better opportunity up North. The displacement of a people is a theme I am very much interested in, as a child of the diaspora, I too am constantly searching to understand my past and roots and for a place to belong. Two Trains Running is an extremely layered play which looks at a complicated American history through the prism of everyday life. The characters are familiar to me, the unsung heroes of normal daily living, trying to get by, who have strong, important voices and opinions that only get aired in private. That aspect really spoke strongly to me in wanting to direct this play, as I grew up with these people all my life. My family is from the Dominican Republic and my parents emigrated to NYC in 1966. I have met all these characters either as members of my family or people in the neighbourhood, to be able to amplify the voices I grew up with is an immense privilege. What I find to be most profound is that everything the characters speak about in 1969 is still relevant to us in 2019, issues with police brutality, a rigged economic system, housing inequalities, crime, poverty, trauma, mental illness, race hostilities. This play is very political in very subtle ways and I found that to be very powerful. The element of protest is one I wanted to draw out and put a focus on because these people’s lives matter. The humour in the play also drew me to it, there is no better resistance to fighting oppression then to embrace joy, laughter and the beauty in humanity.
August Wilson is a celebrated and award-winning writer in the U.S., why do you think that Two Trains Running has so rarely been performed in the UK?
The play premiered in the UK in the 1990’s at the Tricyle Theatre, now the Kiln Theatre in London. This current production is the first time the play is being performed regionally. Our current theatrical climate is begging for untold stories. Many stories are out there, they just need to be produced and staged. I feel partly that theatres have safeguarded their spaces for financial and pragmatic reasons and have sheltered the public by mainly staging productions that are risk adverse or falls in line with what they deem as entertainment or high art. I think we’ve lost sight of what art is meant to do, that risk isn’t always negative and that there isn't just one way to tell a story or just one story to tell. The legacy of slavery and how all, even today, are complicit in that history seems to be a much tougher conversation to have in the UK than in America.
What do you hope audiences from around the UK will take from the production?
I hope that audiences will engage with a story that at first may feel foreign to them but at the heart is universal. A story in which human beings fight for self preservation, dignity, self worth, love, their dreams, their right to just be. I hope people leave the theatre and have deep conversations on history and how many of the themes are still being played out today. And I sincerely wish that the conversations move on to action, that people ask themselves serious questions on what they can do to decolonise their minds and make a better future for our children.
How has it been working with the cast on this?
There is something very special about having an all black cast. There is an ease to speak freely and candidly. We can all relate to the material in significant ways that comes from having a shared lived experience of racism and growing up under racist structures. We’ve shared many personal stories and have also had huge laughs. It’s a beautiful thing to feel seen, heard and recognised.
The production relies heavily on jazz influences, how will this present itself in the play?
August Wilson named one of his biggest influences to be the Blues. You hear it in the musicality of the language in which he writes. The characters all riff off each other at such a pace in conversation that it sounds like my music to my ears. The pace is very important in the piece because it taps into the Blues and Jazz elements of the dialogue. In the play the jukebox is broken, so the sound designer, Ed Lewis and I talked quite a bit about how we can tap into the music of the time coming from the outside world. We hear the outside buzz and music played in the community almost constantly throughout the piece. The background noise not only helps us be in the world but also underscores many of the speeches in the text that directly relate to protest songs of the time.
Has any of your previous work prepared you for the process of directing Two Trains Running?
To date this is the biggest show I’ve worked on, thanks to the RTST Award, Royal & Derngate and ETT. Previous work has helped me have confidence in myself that has allowed me to slide into a larger scale of making work, have the skills I need to deal with all departments and keep the integrity that is essential to the work. Every play is different and demands its own method of storytelling. The themes in Two Trains Running are themes I have come across before as they are ones I choose to continue exploring. Research I have done for other plays have really come in handy for this as its set in the 1960’s. It’s always a joy to reread James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Angela Davies and others of that generation.
What’s next after Two Trains Running?
After this big plans include settling back into Bristol life with my family, organising after school activities and catching up on laundry. I will be doing some teaching with young people for the Boomsatsuma Professional Acting Diploma and directing a play for the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. 2020 has some exciting theatre projects I’m looking forward to but can’t say just yet.