- Associated Press - Saturday, February 20, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - As Viola Davis said in her Emmy Award acceptance speech last year, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Acclaim, then, is directly tied to opportunity.

And for the cast of Open Stage of Harrisburg’s “Two Trains Running,” the opportunity to tell the story of a black neighborhood, as written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Pennsylvanian playwright, is not being squandered. The play opened Feb. 5 and continues through Feb. 21.

“For a long time, I didn’t feel like there was much opportunity, particularly as a black woman,” said Jennette Harrison, who plays Risa in “Two Trains Running.” ”And I think that’s an issue in the industry as a whole.”

“Apparently what forces drive the Oscars are out of touch with what’s really out there.”

Neither Harrison nor Aaron Bomar, her cast mate who plays Memphis in “Two Trains Running,” were surprised at the Academy Award nominations this year.

“I saw ‘Creed,’” Harrison said. “Michael B. Jordan was really great. And it’s just a shame sometimes that actors of color, for whatever reason, get overlooked.”

For playwright August Wilson, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, presenting the opportunity for the African-American experience to be told was an important part of his career. Wilson wrote 10 plays, known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, which tell the stories of 10 different groups of black people. Each is set in a different decade in the 20th century, and all but one is set in Pittsburgh.

Over the past several years, Open Stage of Harrisburg has presented five of the 10. “Two Trains Running” is the sixth. Bomar has appeared in all of them so far.

“When we went through the first one, I’ve seen how important his work was to be presented, and what kind of opportunities it offers actors of color in the area,” Bomar said.

Memphis, Bomar said, owns a diner in the Hill Street District in Pittsburgh in 1969. It is a time of heavy urban development, and Memphis’ diner is the only remaining business that has yet to be purchased by the city so that they can be demolished.

“Memphis is somewhat of a holdout,” Bomar said. “He has a price he wants for his property and he won’t settle for anything less.”

While he clearly has principles, Memphis is no saint. His treatment of his only employee, Risa, bears some scrutiny. While Risa does most of the work, Harrison said, Memphis sits and talks with friends or reads the newspaper.

“She tries to be strong and hold on to her beliefs and convictions against a room full of men who have different points of view, and may not treat her the way she prefers to be treated,” Harrison said.

Neither Harrison nor Bomar were familiar with August Wilson’s plays before working with Open Stage. Both agreed that the opportunities to present the stories were fantastic.

“He’s a great writer and should be studied more,” Harrison said. “Without (Open Stage) being committed to doing shows featuring minority casts, I’m not sure there would be much of that around here. I don’t know too many other companies if I’d be able to work as an actor in these types of shows.”

Bomar responded to the Oscar controversy by looking to the SAG Awards as vindication.

“The SAG is actors awarding actors,” Bomar said. “I felt that was more true. Apparently what forces drive the Oscars are out of touch with what’s really out there.”

In a flurry of wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Sundance Film Festival, diversity made a comeback.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in three productions at Gamut Theatre, and other productions at Open Stage other than just the Wilson shows,” Bomar said. Both companies have “absolutely” been progressive with their choices for their seasons and casting, he said.

“I feel that the actors here haven’t been aware of Gamut or Open Stage,” Bomar said. And now that more have become aware of it, there will be other opportunities to present more … I’m hesitating, here because I want to say that there will be more opportunities to present black plays, which would be a plus. But also it would open up the acting arena.”

Simply presenting the August Wilson cycle by itself, Bomar said, is not enough. He would like to see more black playwrights works be considered, including those from local talents.

“What I hope would happen is that it creates not just a black actors’ field, but an actors’ field,” he said. “That all the actors in the area are able to collaborate and act together, and present things that really brings the talent that is here out. I am impressed by the talent that is here, both black and white.”

Progress, Harrison agreed, did not mean that the work was done.

“I would like to see more opportunity,” she said. “And not just black actors and writers, any type of minority, including women. Shows that feature women. Roles for minority women are very limited, particularly for domestic roles or characters that aren’t fully developed. I would like to see so much more of that around here.”

Harrison’s first acting role in the area was in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Considering the play is set in the upper-class social circles of Victorian England, casting a black actor wasn’t a traditional choice. While more roles for minorities are important, Harrison said, non-traditional casting has a part to play as well.

“Minds need to be open,” she said. “The character can be the exact same person, have the exact same characteristics, have the same personality traits, but can be a different color on the outside. We’re all human beings, we all have similar experiences. Why not have people of color just being people?”

“One of the things I love about this play in particular is that I can relate to it so much.”

Harrison lived in Pittsburgh for a time, and saw some of the gentrification and urban renewal happening there, just as it does in Wilson’s play.

“The descriptions (of the Hill Street District) they talk about in the play are very much true as of recent years,” she said. “It’s run down. It’s part of the city that really there isn’t much attention paid to it. A lot of business have moved downtown.”

The social issues in “Two Trains Running” aren’t new to Harrison or Open Stage. Their recent production of “Clyborne Park,” in which Harrison was a cast member, handled the same issues. Then, as now, the cast discussed the same trends as they found them in Harrisburg.

“You have these restaurants and the museum in (the Midtown) area now,” Harrison said. “And it kind of pushes people out. A lot of housing is being redeveloped. And then you have the influx of people who have money - it’s not just white people - who move back in. And from what I understand that’s been the cycle of Harrisburg for awhile.”

Bomar, who has seen the same cycle in previous homes of Cincinnati and Atlantic City, agreed. His own current neighborhood in Harrisburg used to be a “ghost town when I walked up the street.” Black business and mixed-race neighborhoods are more common now in Harrisburg, he said. But it was the displacement of current residents, be it here or in other cities, that he most connected with in “Two Trains Running.”

The story, according to Harrison, boils down to people trying to get what they want with the tools available to them. And for some, that achievement isn’t possible, sometimes thanks in part to the system being rigged against them from the beginning.

“I want people to think about what it takes for people who aren’t them,” she said, “And about what other people go through in life to feel like they matter.”

“One guy who is recurring, Hambone, just the words that he says - he wants his ham,” Bomar said. And while the mentally handicapped character’s mantra is a point of ridicule for some, Bomar said the metaphor applies to all of the characters. They all want to be heard.

“I want audiences to leave out of there thinking about relationships,” he said. “About how people are judged, how you can change your view of people. The main thing I want people to do is to leave entertained, and having a lot to talk about when they leave the theatre.”





Information from: Pennlive.com, https://www.pennlive.com

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