(L to R) Chester Gregory (Sterling) and Nambi E. Kelley (Risa) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, directed by Chuck Smith at Goodman Theatre (March 7 – April 12, 2015).

(L to R) Chester Gregory (Sterling) and Nambi E. Kelley (Risa) in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, directed by Chuck Smith at Goodman Theatre (March 7 – April 12, 2015).


For much of August Wilson’s  Two Trains Running -  a play set in a Pittsburgh restaurant in 1969, Risa (played in the latest Goodman Theatre production by Nambi E. Kelley) is silent.

She’s physically there fulfilling her role as a waitress. Following the barking orders of Memphis the owner of the restaurant, wasting time getting West the local funeral director sugar he hardly uses, compassionately feeding Hambone a misunderstood mentally ill customer, fighting off the lustful gaze of both Wolf and Sterling who desire her, serving Holloway whatever he needs to go along with his daily reading and promotions of Aunt Ester, a 322 year old woman (the age is debatable among the men) with supernatural healing powers.

However in the world of this seventh play in Mr. Wilson’s ten play cycle, this is the sum total of  Risa’s life. She’s as mysterious as the self-inflicted 15 scars (7 on one, 8 on the other) that adorn her otherwise beautiful legs.

And I have to admit, as a champion of seeing African-American women in quality narratives, it was initially frustrating to watch. This is after all an August Wilson play. Meaning if you want anybody, and I do mean anybody to tell your story, it is this poetic mastermind. So I sat patiently waiting for Mr. Wilson to tell Risa’s story through one of his poetic gems of a monologue.

“Tell her story Mr. Wilson like you told Memphis’ pain. There is a story in those scars. Tell it.” I pleaded mentally from my seat. Yet it never came. We got a glimpse of her joy and sorrow with her interaction with Sterling but in the end we never knew her like we knew Memphis, Wolf, West, Sterling, Holloway and even Hambone who says virtually the same line throughout the entire play.

Yet as the play closed I thought back to an interview I read with Mr. Wilson and I became less frustrated. He said :

“I am cautious in writing women characters; I am respectful of them as I would be of my mother. That is, I try to write honest women… but it’s very hard to put myself in their space. For instance, Risa in Two Trains Running … I couldn’t make it into some heavier interior psychology. Not that I didn’t want to, I guess, but I don’t know it.” (Bryer & Hertig 109, 179).

Then it all began to make sense.  I cannot tell you how many times I have cringed at portrayals of African-American women on stage by writers who are not African-American women. A lot of the times, they are not a human, let alone a character. Their caricature’s of what the author believes black womanhood to be like. And most of the times their completely off and you’re looking on stage at this almost laughable distortion being passed off as truth.

With that being said, I respect Mr. Wilson for not elaborating about what he did not know. He wrote Risa based upon his observations of women like her and he observed a deep sadness in them, just as he did with the men he wrote about.  Yet because he did not fully understand the deep pains of black womanhood, he respected the Risas of the world enough to not write an inaccurate story as most choose to do. Instead he allowed her silence and scars to speak, and the female actors who portray her like Ms. Kelley (who did so with such grace and vunerablity) fill in the gaps.

If silence ever had precision, Risa’s was it. I know those women.  Those women who walk about silently carrying the pain that life has thrown at them. My mother is one.  And I know the fear of being a woman –we live in a time where women are being brutally murdered simply for rejecting a man’s aggressive advances. Like the young mother in New York who was shot dead because she refused to give a man her number. So yes, I can understand why Risa would make such a choice to mutilate her body to be unattractive.

Therefore, the brilliancy of Risa’s character was not in the monologue I wished she had, but in her golden silence.

The mark of a great writer is not just in knowing what to write, but in what not to. There’s a reason Mr. Wilson is considered one of the greatest writers to ever live. This is just one example.


–Loy Webb


Two Trains Running at the Goodman Theatre. Now until April 12, 2015. Click Here for Tickets.

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