By Diego Ruiz

While 2 Trains Running is set in Pittsburgh, it tells the story of urban African-American neighborhoods across the country that faced post-war urban renewal. Set in 1969, the play takes place in a diner in a historically African-American district slowly being bought up by the city government. The restaurant has lost its luster, and doesn’t see very many customers anymore. The owner is hoping to sell the building to the government for as much money as he can. The development of the neighborhood, and the changing relationships among the characters who inhabit the diner, keep the plot moving forward. But a substantial portion of 2 Trains Running is spent just watching characters in the diner sit and talk. The characters – the stubborn owner of the diner, a man just out of prison trying to find legitimate work, a man “running numbers” for the underground gambling economy, the director of a black funeral home buying up neighborhood property – all get ample time to reflect on how their experiences have led them to this point. These conversations provide a broader historical backdrop of race relations in the 1960s, and the conflicts within a civil rights movement rapidly transforming into a black power movement. The actors – many of whom have played different roles in previous iterations of the play at the Penumbra – dive in with passionate and nuanced performances. One who especially stands out is Risa, the diner’s waitress and cook. She is the only female character in the play, and is constantly sexualized by the other male characters. She moves slowly around the diner, clop-clopping her shoes at an eerie rhythm, never thanked by her boss for keeping the establishment running. The Penumbra Theatre is a singularly appropriate venue for a play about a black neighborhood facing urban renewal. It’s in a park at the edge of the old Rondo neighborhood, which was the old heart of St. Paul’s black community until it was cleared to make way for I-94 and high-rise housing projects under postwar redevelopment plans. The presence of the theatre itself – a beacon of African-American culture in an area that was extensively shaped by the powerful forces of urban redevelopment – reflects the resilience the play’s characters display throughout.