Two Trains Running Tricycle Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture
Come the millennium, we can expect a spate of plays that try to sum up "the experience" of the 20th century from the perspective of a particular group of people. For some dramatists, it may well be a sweat to meet this deadline. August Wilson, though, can sit back and relax because he will already have accomplished such a project - by instalment.

Collectively amounting to an epic survey of what life was like for African- Americans during this century, each of his plays touches on a specific decade. Set in a Pittsburgh diner in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Two Trains Running is Wilson's Sixties play and it receives its British premiere at the Tricycle in a production by Paulette Randall that revels in the vernacular verve of the script and in that characteristic Wilsonian combination: utter firmness of principle and yet awarm and humorous understanding of human fallibility.

As in most of his work, there is a strong sense of atavistic longing for the agrarian South and that blacks are in exile in the North. Memphis (George Harris), the owner of the diner and an exemplar of black self- reliance, is being forced to sell up to the city council. One thread of the play follows his efforts not to be palmed off with less than his asking price or to be parlayed into selling to the local undertaker (Stefan Kalipha) who enjoys a brisk trade in the victims of destitution and black- on-black violence. A deeper motivation for Memphis, though, is the dream of going back to the South to reclaim the land from which he was driven in the early Thirties.

Looking at the various ways in which its black characters strive to make a better life for themselves (gambling, crime, religion, commerce, etc), the play makes the point that, when black labour came free, whites couldn't get enough of it. Now there's a charge, the employment opportunities have mysteriously vanished. That blacks are trapped in a rut of injustice is symbolised, almost too overtly, by Hambone (Alan Cooke), an underprivileged young man whose nine-year obsession with the way he was treated by a white butcher has expelled everything else from his mind.

"They black and they beautiful. You sure gotta think yourself ugly to go round saying you're beautiful," opines elderly Holloway (splendid Al Matthews). In its rich hubbub of voices, the play lets you hear all the conflicting opinions among blacks about the trends and movements of the time. Wilson does not editorialise but makes you comprehend why each individual has taken up his or her position. There's a headlong rush towards an over- neat happy ending: what precedes it, though, is excellent.

n To 24 February. Booking: 0171-328 1000