Black to the Future
Between the schoolroom recitations of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the regular car-radio blaring of 50 Cent's latest single, it can be difficult to pinpoint the essence of Black History Month. Thankfully, Houston's theater scene is offering up some enlightenment in the form of two plays: August Wilson's Two Trains Running, playing at the Ensemble Theatre, and Reginald Edmund's A Love Story, at the Silver House Theatre.
Wilson's plays, which include Jitney, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and The Piano Lesson, are of summer-reading-list status. His work has earned two Pulitzers, several Tonys and a host of devoted readers. Two Trains Running, set in 1960s Pittsburgh, portrays a collection of local dreamers spelling out their hopes in a diner that's about to be sold.
While Two Trains Running is set during the civil rights movement, it doesn't bluntly portray the drama of the decade's well-known race struggles. As a result, its simple, intimate story might be even more evocative of the everyday black experience. "In almost all African-American plays it's the coexistence of seriousness and humor that brings forth the elements of the work. And that's what August is a master of," says director Eileen Morris. "It comes from a really honest and for-real place."
In the Silver House Theatre, tucked behind the George R. Brown Convention Center, Wilson's legacy also looms. Twenty-four-year-old playwright Reginald Edmund lists Wilson as his strongest influence.
A Love Story, Edmund says, is about "the difficulties of finding love at a historically black college or university." At its center are two young couples: There's self-proclaimed "player" Jonah and his cheated girlfriend, Kelissa, and all-for-love romantic Matthew and the object of his affections, Doni, who's in an abusive relationship. The play is the first installment of a trilogy that Edmund's working on; the second is about pledging and hazing at college and should be produced sometime this summer.
"It's about people looking at the exterior body rather than the interior, or at the material wealth, whether or not they make a lot of money," he says. This is hardly the stuff of the civil rights movement, but Edmund's play, like Wilson's, skirts the edges of larger cultural tensions. In this bling-slinging, skin-baring age, love can get lost in the translation for blacks and whites alike.
His subject matter is fresh, but it's Edmund's format that's ambitious: He calls A Love Story a "poetical," an experimental play incorporating dialogue, music (mostly R&B) and poetry. "In my opinion it's kind of unique," he says. "I've never seen anything like it."
Of course, it's far too soon to draw parallels between Wilson and Edmund; Edmund is still trying to muster a profit so he can pay his actors. Still, the two plays together offer something different for February: a little bit of black history, yes, but also a hint of black future.
Two Trains Running runs through February 20. 3535 Main. For information, call 713-520-0055 or visit www.ensemblehouston.com. $18-$27. A Love Story's final performance is at 7 p.m. Friday, February 11. 1107 Chartres. For information, call 713-547-0126. $15 ticket includes meal.
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