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Are There Still Only Two Trains Running? A Talk With Ernest Perry Jr. & Chester Gregory

We had the privilege of talking with two dynamic actors who were recently a part of the cast of Two Trains Running by August Wilson at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago that closed Sunday April 19th, which we told you NOT to miss! One was Ernest Perry Jr., who is a veteran and a staple in the Chicago theatre scene, having worked on 8 out of 10 August Wilson cycle pieces in the course of his career, shared with us a lot of history and wisdom from his years.  The other was the astounding Chester Gregory, who took the Wilson journey for the first time with Two Trains. Some of the insight they had caused a stir in us. Hopefully it’ll do something for you as well.

Now, I interviewed these two gentlemen over two weeks ago, before there were the stories of #EricHarris and #WalterScott flooding all of our news sources. The images and the video from those high profile stories and the thought of there being cases we know nothing about made me take the time to really listen to what these two gentlemen had to say about the stage our country is on/in and how much August Wilson really knew about the reality of the world then and what we were facing.

“August Wilson is one of our great American playwrights. As an actor it isn’t very often you get dialogue this rich.” says Gregory “I wanted to really get a chance to live in the world and in the language of Wilson.” He also goes on to talk about how the entire show was blocked in 3 days so they could really focus on living the words and even though it’s taking place in 1969, and the first production was mounted in 1990, it felt very relevant to 2015. “Civil rights, racism, the relationships black men have with the police, the struggle to find good work, protests and rallies, there’s a lot of information that is poignant for today. It feels like he wrote it in the past year but that’s why it’s a classic piece because it’s just that timeless. But hopefully 20 years from now it will resonate in a different way.”

Chester Gregory portrayed Sterling. A personable young man who appears to be somewhat “unbalanced,” Sterling has recently been released from jail. He does not show any remorse for his crime, which was robbing a bank because he was tired of having no money, and he seems poised to go back to prison. The play suggests that work is very difficult to find for poor black people, and Sterling continually looks in vain for a job.

Ernest Perry Jr., who portrayed Hambone in this production of Two Trains talks about how his character has a special significance. Even though Hambone has a physical impairment it doesn’t effect his mental capacity and that a lot of time we dismiss people like him because of the way we perceive them. This character represents us as a people, in a way.  No matter how someone may think of us, that doesn’t distract us from our mission of justice and equality.

The Hambone story line is based upon the white owner of the meat market who promised to reward Hambone with a ham if he painted his fence well, but then agreed only to give him a chicken. Hambone repeats the same phrase of wanting his Ham over and over again. He wants and deserves what is owed to him and will not focus on anything else but that.

“That’s why he says “I want my ham. He’s going to give me my ham” because until he is compensated for the work he has already done he’s not going to focus on anything else. And that’s the way we have to be, and some of us are, as a people. Which is the reason African-Americans have accomplished so much because we have that type of attitude today. You’re going to give us our due!” – Ernest Perry Jr.

To be honest, listening to this interview back the first time, I understood but I really didn’t get it. It wasn’t until I woke up to the story of #WalterScott and thought about some the things that were said here that it stung me. I just began to cry and couldn’t revisit it until now. I understood what Chester Gregory felt when he told me about his on stage experience in sharing this story. In how he felt the realization of telling someone else’s story, that it was lived. That someone actually lived the life of being a janitor locked inside of a building overnight to clean and let out in the morning only to make sure they didn’t steal anything. The pain of knowing an injustice, even if you’re unaware of anything else, just wraps itself around you like a boa constrictor and chokes the hell out of your soul.

“Look, is there any difference between what Wilson was writing about in 1969 and today? Every line could really be taken out of today’s headline. The whole thing. Everything is still relevant. That’s why it’s very difficult to believe that we’ve made any real progress or any change. So you have to ask yourself where is the progress if we’re still dealing with the same problems?” says Perry. Then he leaves us with this. “You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get to work because there is so much work to be done. We’re all human beings and we’re so far away from that concept of being human beings to and with one another. Yeah, they’re not hanging us up in the trees but they’re singing songs about it on a bus. And if we don’t realize our common humanity we will all perish.”

“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.”
―August Wilson


Broadway star and Gary, IN native Chester Gregory appears in his very first August Wilson play—Two Trains Running, directed by Chuck Smith, in the role of Sterling—at Goodman Theatre, where he previously appeared in Regina Taylor’s Drowning Crow (2002). His Broadway credits include Hairspray, Tarzan, Cry-Baby and Sister Act and has received an NAACP Theater Award for his performance as Jimmy Early in the national tour of Dreamgirls; his performance in The Jackie Wilson Story earned him a Joseph Jefferson Award, Audelco Award, Black Theatre Alliance Award (BTAA) and Black Excellence Award. Mr. Gregory toured his one-man show, The Eve of Jackie (Wilson), at venues across the country, including in his hometown—where he was presented with the key to the city and made an Honorary State Representative. He will receive an honorary doctorate from Columbia College Chicago this spring.

Critical acclaim for Chester Gregory in Two Trains Running

“A grand return from Broadway” –Chicago Sun-Times

“Endearing, dynamic” –Daily Herald

“Gregory imbues Sterling with charm and potential” –Chicago Critic

returns to Goodman Theatre, where his many credits include Death and the King’s Horseman, An Enemy of the People, Play Mas, The Road, Edmond, A Raisin in the Sun, Galileo, A Christmas Carol, Black Star Line, Puddin ‘n’ Pete (Jeff Award nomination), The Ties That Bind, Let Me Live, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Miss Evers’ Boys, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Oo-Bla-Dee, Drowning Crow, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Cry, The Beloved Country, The Iceman Cometh, The Merchant of Venice, Heartbreak House, Magnolia and Gas For Less. Other Chicago credits include Rest, The Gospel of Lovingkindness, Ceremo­nies in Dark Old Men, Daddy’s Seashore Blues, Pecong and Split Second (Victory Gardens Theater); All’s Well That Ends Well, Playboy of the West Indies, Mary Stuart and Pantomime (Court Theatre); Henry V, Measure for Measure, As You Like It, and Cymbeline (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); Meetings and Rhino’s Policeman at Northlight Theatre; The Petrified Forest, The Merchant of Venice and King Lear at (Body Politic); Suspenders! (Chicago Theatre Company, Jeff Award nomination); Driving Miss Daisy (Briar Street Theatre) and 5 Rooms of Furniture (Organic Theater Company, Black Theatre Alliance Award for Best Actor). Regional credits include Death and the Kling’s Horsemen(Kennedy Center); The Tempest (Amer­ican Shakespeare Center); Jitney, Driving Miss Daisy andGem of the Ocean (Indiana Reper­tory Theatre); Fences (Arden Theatre Company, Barrymore Award nomina­tion); King Hedley II (Alliance Theatre); Of Mice and Men (Virginia Stage Company); The Tempest and Fences (Actors Theatre of Louisville); Gem of the Ocean and Trouble in Mind(Milwaukee Repertory Theater); Birdie Blue (City Theatre); Emancipa­tion of the Valet de Chambre(Cleveland Play House); Dutchman (Hartford Stage); Oo-Bla-Dee (La Jolla Playhouse); Elmina’sKitchen, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Center Stage). International credits include The IcemanCometh at the Abbey Theatre (Dublin); My Chil­dren, My Africa at Vienna’s English Theatre and The Merchant of Venice at Royal Shakespeare Company (London), Thalia Theatre (Germany) and MC93 Bobigny (Paris). Television credits include ER, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Lady Blue, The Howard Beach Story, Early Edition, Unnatural Causes, The Watcher, The Untouch­ables and Boss. Film credits include Quebec, Barbershop 2, Roll Bounce, Liar, Liar, Rage in Harlem, The Color of Money, Running Scared and The Fifteen Minute Hamlet.
Written By

Drew Shade is a theatre artist and enthusiast who fosters artistic diversity and excellence for the love of Black theatre artists. He is the Founder/Creative Director of Broadway Black, Off-Book Podcast & The Antonyo Awards. “Have a belief in yourself that is bigger than anyone’s disbelief.” – August Wilson


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