WASHINGTON -- In August Wilson's new play, "Two Trains Running," one of the characters is called Hambone because every morning he stands outside a butcher shop demanding the ham he was promised 9 1/2 years ago for painting the butcher's fence.
Hambone is mentally deficient and most folks in the neighborhood think this preoccupation proves it. But in an important sense, Hambone's determination is at the heart of this moving drama -- the latest in the decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century black American life by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.
"Two Trains Running" -- now playing a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center -- is Mr. Wilson's 1960s play, but the racial turbulence of that decade is relegated to the
background. Instead, the play focuses on the passions of ordinary people; as directed by Lloyd Richards, it is a chamber opera for seven distinct, yet beautifully blended voices -- the proprietor and waitress of a Pittsburgh diner and five customers.
And, whether it is due to the black power movement or Hambone's stubborn example, in the end all of the characters are touched by the themes of increased consciousness and refusing to settle.
This is especially true of Memphis, the diner owner, whose establishment stands in the way of urban renewal. Al White's musical cadences make Memphis' speeches sound like arias, particularly when he relates his impassioned account of losing his farm down South, an experience that left him determined not to let anyone take anything away from him again.
Although "Two Trains Running" contains less mysticism than Mr. Wilson's two previous plays -- "The Piano Lesson" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" -- its rich dialogue is amply sprinkled with talk ofdeath, religion and luck, topics personified by such characters as a funeral director and a numbers runner.
There are also three lost souls, drifting among these various poles. Besides Hambone, who is played with disturbing credibility by Sullivan Walker, there's the diner's newest customer -- an ex-con, played by John Cothran Jr., who's got his eye on fast money and on the melancholy waitress. Cynthia Martells makes a noble effort to portray the latter, but this sullen, disturbed character is inadequately drawn.
The play's other weakness is length; at three hours, even Mr. Wilson's wonderfully poetic prose can seem long-winded. And though the script may shortchange the history of the '60s, it never loses sight of the bigger issue, the issue that underlies the entire play cycle -- the importance of coming to terms with your own history.
"Two Trains Running" continues at the Kennedy Center in Washington through Dec. 7; call (202) 467-4600.