Emeka Learned What He Learned from August Wilson, on His Way to ‘Two Trains Running’ at Pittsburgh Public

By Sharon Eberson

Justin Emeka had the determination to do things his way, along with the insight to seek advice from a giant of American theater.

So it was natural that the fledgling director would seize every opportunity to speak with August Wilson.

This was back in the 1990s when the director and actor was a Seattle graduate student. The playwright was living there, too, writing about the land of his youth, Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

“I’d chase him down wherever I saw him like everybody did,” said Emeka. “He was very down to earth and warm … always very gracious when, as a young artist, I was talking about all the things I wanted to do. I was probably like Sterling, in the play, at the time.”

The play is Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Sterling’s character is the newcomer to a Hill District diner with a colorful band of regulars. Emeka was speaking on the morning of June 1, the day of the first preview of the play at Pittsburgh Public Theater. Opening night at the O’Reilly Theater is on Saturday and runs through June 19.

The director, in this case, also is part of the cast in the role of Holloway, the diner’s resident philosopher and spiritual healer. Emeka described himself as “thrilled, overjoyed, to finally have my turn at his work. It’s as though I’ve been waiting my whole career for this moment in a lot of ways.”

When Emeka would run into Wilson, he felt he was welcome to ask advice of the man he called his “North Star, a guiding light.”

Emeka had been inspired by Wilson’s groundbreaking essay, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” in which the playwright called color-blind casting “an aberrant idea.”

Student director Emeka was casting “Macbeth” with people of color, and he wanted Wilson’s opinion of his vision for it.

Brian Coats as Memphis (Michael Henninger photo)

“I wasn’t into color-blind casting, but color-conscious casting – what can happen when you invite Black culture into the world,” Emeka said. “I was talking to him about the same way that Black people brought different energy to the Christian church, I felt the same thing could happen with Shakespeare. He was very encouraging in telling me to be true to my vision.”

Between then and now, Emeka had put his dreams of directing a professional production of a Wilson work on hold. There was a long line of directors already waiting, which meant he would have to take his time.

Emeka, a professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, is currently on a two-year sabbatical to concentrate on his own projects and development as a theater artist.

Two Trains Running is a new beginning and a long time coming for Emeka and the Public. On March 10, 2020, in a celebratory event at the O’Reilly Theater, the 2020-21 season was announced. Emeka was introduced as the company’s first resident director, having already directed Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and anticipating the opening of American Son.

That play never made it out of previews due to the pandemic shutdown. That Two Trains Running is finally here is a victory of persistence in a season that has seen but one show canceled, unrelated to COVID cases.

Pittsburgh Public Theater has a storied history of producing works from Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle, including Two Trains Running in 1994. In that production, Charles Weldon starred as diner owner Memphis Lee, a character who came to Pittsburgh from Mississippi in the 1920s. With money won playing the numbers, he operates a modest Hill District diner, a second home to some of his more colorful neighbors.

Memphis’ diner also is in the path of an urban renewal project, and the City of Pittsburgh has said it will pay $15,000 for it – but Memphis says he will sell only for $25,000. Sala Udin starred in that production as Holloway, the diner’s resident philosopher, and Montae Russell (TV’s “ER”) played Sterling.

Brenden Peifer as Sterling, Melessie Clark as Risa and Justin Emeka as Holloway (Michael Henninger photo)

Emeka takes on the role of Holloway as well as directing a cast that features Brian D. Coats as Memphis, along with Melessie Clark, Ananias J. Dixon, Wali Jamal, Brenden Peifer, and Brian Starks.

Although Emeka seems a bit young for the role of Holloway, an elder in the community, he identifies closely with the character.

“I feel like he’s the spiritual core and the moral guide of the piece. And I feel like, in a lot of ways, he embodies August Wilson’s philosophies, in the way that he sees the world,” Emeka said. “These characters reflected when August Wilson was growing up, in the ’60s, and they were close and personal to him.”

He added that people who know him well will immediately see how he connects to Holloway.

“I do gravitate toward a spiritual foundation and vision of the world, very philosophical, and Holloway is very familiar to me, in terms of the people who inspired me,” Emeka said. “I was always guided by very Holloway-type voices – older men who had three-dimensional insights into the world.”

Acting while also directing a Wilson work might seem like a monumental task. Still, the timing and circumstance seem right after several “accidental” trial runs.

The first time Emeka directed and acted at the same time was Death of a Salesman, a 2008 production for Oberlin College Theater, in which he played Biff opposite Avery Brooks as Willy Loman.

“It was a lot at the time, and I still felt like I was learning as a director, so I couldn’t serve the actors the way that I wanted to while doing both,” he recalled.

In the dozen years since then, Emeka has stood in for actors who were unable to go on. Then, in October of last year, he was directing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Karamu House in Cleveland. On the day of the final rehearsal, the actor playing Toledo could not continue. Emeka took over the role for the entire run.

“Instead of doing it for an emergency, I became inspired by the idea of building an artistic process that allowed me to do both directing and acting,” he said.

Having performed Toledo’s role, he could also see the similarities with Holloway, which gave him the confidence to act as a choice “rather than as an accident.”

As a director, one choice he made early on was to go local in casting and in learning about Wilson’s Pittsburgh.

“I wanted to cast in Pittsburgh – if you can’t cast an August Wilson play in Pittsburgh, where can you cast it? I wanted this production to be Broadway for this region,” Emeka said.

The actors are primarily local or Cleveland-based, with one actor from New York: Coats, who understudied three roles for the Tony Award-winning revival of Jitney in 2017.

Every week they have been in rehearsal, the cast has taken walks through the Hill District and, on one trip, visited the newly renovated August Wilson House. Emeka marveled that Wilson’s younger brother, Edwin Kittle, “peeked in” while they were at the house at 1727 Bedford Ave.

Pittsburghers, in general, are very willing to share their memories, said Emeka, and they “talk like August Wilson’s characters – they are storytellers.”

Some people have attached a meaning to a particular store owner referenced in Two Trains Running as representing a real person, but Emeka doesn’t approach the work as a factual document.

“In spending time in the Hill District, you run into a lot of August Wilson references. And the magical thing about his writing is how much he wove history and imagination together in his plays,” Emeka explained. “I don’t really think there was much of an attempt on his part to retell history as it happened. He seemed to be much more interested in blending the two. He talked very much about his work being poetic and him being a poet at heart, using metaphors and images.”

Wilson’s spiritual side is very much in evidence in Two Trains Running, which introduces the character of Ester, the ancient Hill District sage who has great off-stage influence here.

Wilson set his play in 1969, a time of civil rights and antiwar protests. Yet the writer chose to spotlight the consequences of urban renewal for Black communities – a theme he would return to in his final play, Radio Golf – and a small group of people inside a diner.

“It’s such a transformational period in American history. But it’s ironic that August Wilson’s ’60s play is not focused quite so much on the revolution; it’s almost like the day after the revolution has happened. Now, where do we go from here?” Emeka asked. “Our prophets have all been killed – Malcolm is dead; Prophet Samuel is dead. ‘Where do we go from here?’ It’s such a relevant question when you look at Obama’s presidency and the euphoria that happened. But now we are in this period, having achieved what we longed for for so long, but still feeling somewhat empty as a community and as a nation. How do we re-create a moral center? How do we create a love foundation that will help move us into tomorrow? And that’s what I see Two Trains Running grappling with.”

The director, who is finally getting his turn, and acting to boot, has built a foundation that he hopes will be embraced by those coming to see a play that is not as well known as, say, The Piano Lesson, Fences, or other Wilson works.

“I want the audience to be able to fall in love with every character,” Emeka said, “because spending three hours in the diner with these people, you have to want to be there with them. The cast has been really tremendous and successful in that regard. It’s such a charismatic group, and they are fun and endearing to be around. I’m confident that the audience is going to fall in love with each of them.”

August Wilson, who died at age 60 in 2005, had an obvious affection for the group that congregated at Memphis Lee’s diner at the end of a tumultuous decade.

“The people of this play … have loud voices and big hearts,” Wilson wrote. “They search. They falter. They continue. … There are always and only two trains running. There is life, and there is death. Each of us rides them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone.”

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Two Trains Running is at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown, through June 19. Tickets and details: Call 412-316-1600 or visit https://ppt.org/production/76257/two-trains-running

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