Train tracks are a site of convergence. As the world’s inhabitants move in uncountable, alternating directions, for a moment it rests on the rails, where those lines meet for a moment before they break off again. America is built on railways — a metaphorical and literal connector — crossing a continent and connecting the seas. But within that connection the train is also a destructive force, tearing through stolen lands and rolling along the backs of the enslaved.
This contradiction, connection and carnage make up the underbelly of Wayne Harris’ “Train Stories,” currently on stage at The Marsh in Berkeley through Sept. 29. First performed as a one-man play in 2003, the Afro-Solo Festival supported Harris — a multi-hyphenate actor-director-playwright — in adapting his piece into an ensemble show this past spring. “Train Stories” unfolds through a series of monologues, each told by three Black men who make their living off the railroad in the years before the Civil Rights Movement. Though their differing lifestyles and philosophies typically come together in dissonance, their occasional beats in harmony ring out. For a moment, they run along the same line.
“Train Stories” begins with a stumbled step, as Elder Brown (Harris) plods to center stage. His pace is heavy, a lasting impression of the railway labor his body still bears from years prior. He speaks of the collaborative effort needed to lay each track down and, in a cascade, pride slips to passion slips to pain. This sense — one of the ghosts of the past haunting the players in the present — makes up the play’s broader thematic intentions, revealing itself within each character’s actions. For Tyrone Little (Tony Cyprien), a pimp who galivants on the train oozing charisma and sleaze, his search for greater independence comes at the expense of his community. A porter on the railway, John Henry (Kirk Waller), was named for the Black folk hero whose tireless work constructing a railroad tunnel led to his death, collapsing with a hammer in hand.
To take in Harris’s story is to watch the fates weave their golden threads of time. A phrase here and a line there knit together the lives of the three individuals, illustrating their differences as a result of mutual entanglements with history. The train — a symbol of freedom in opportunity and a simultaneous restriction in the path — is the perfect framework for his broader point. While his prose dips into the explicit — breaking from the subtleties of colloquial speech to state a broader message directly — it is in his minor details that the work makes its strongest points.
In taking on a story of daunting breadth, some subjects manage to slip through the cracks. A greater plot point surrounding an off-stage character, a young Black woman, loses some traction when dealing with the intricacies of her experience. Even so, Harris achieves the labyrinthine, handling the intersections of lives in a thoroughfare for all American history.
Further uplifting the work on the page is the work of those who bring it to life. All three actors, though seldom interacting with one another by the nature of the monologue, operate in dramaturgic sync. The play is staged so that each character is cast in shadow when another has his moment to speak. In that stillness, they shift together and gaze at one another. They communicate in a hidden, silent language that thunders, making up the beating heart of the play that pulls together all the running threads.
Waller’s performance as the imprudent idealist is especially resonant. The character’s inner conflict shifts across his face as he clings to the hope of Black mythos while coming to terms with the restrictions America enforces on Black reality. Waller’s expressions ripple, as the paradox between what he believes and what he knows drops like a stone. Cyprien, with his background in storytelling, garners a magnetic performance. His character is cocky, crude and if placed in the wrong actor’s hands, could be rendered as cartoonish. And yet, Cyprien grants him his humanity, confronting the row with an empathy that shines through.
With its gifted cast and a playwright with an expansive vision, “Train Stories” is a play of extensive scope and simple scale. It challenges ideas on what it means to do the right thing, and how the everyday is constantly informed by the past. Performed and written with a heavy heart, Harris places historical hardship at center stage and knows we must confront it.