Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

“I can relate to my character Wolf’s predicament, being a black male in the UK. He talks about being wrongfully arrested and that has happened to me on several occasions. I was put in a cell for four hours by the police who then released me with an apology. I have no criminal convictions and was just going about my business, but the damage was done,” Ray Emmet Brown tells me.

“All theatre should be an inspiring experience. Wilson wanted his plays to inform, heal and uncover the truth”

“It was a very dehumanising experience so I can empathise with Wolf’s viewpoint of not being listened to, the feeling of helplessness and discrimination on the basis of colour, even if it is set in 1960s America. Instead I just pour all that into my character.”

August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, directed by Nancy Medina, comes to Oxford Playhouse from tomorrow until Saturday. This major revival will introduce this Pulitzer Prize shortlisted modern classic to Oxford audiences for the first time.

All pics by Manuel Harlan

Set in Pittsburgh in 1969, there’s a controversial new president in the White House, and racial tensions are on the rise. The regulars of Memphis Lee’s restaurant are struggling to cope with the turbulence of a rapidly changing world. The diner is in threat of being torn down, a casualty of the city’s renovation project that is sweeping away the buildings of a community, but not its spirit. Iconic American playwright August Wilson paints a vivid portrait of everyday lives in this defining moment of American history. 

“Two Trains Running is fundamentally about story-telling. it stands up on its own as a story and it’s about where that takes you. It’s about capturing the human condition right across the generations”

“It’s a massive play, and a huge, colossus part,” Ray tells me as he rehearses. 

“Getting this role has been a real baptism of fire because I’ve been working mainly in TV (most recently in Netflix’s The Stranger) , so it’s great to be back on stage and to honour Wilson’s work.”

So what does he make of Two Trains Running? “Everyone has to have an opinion and Wilson writes about what was going on at the time. He had fire in his belly, so I have to do the play justice.

“You can’t go off piste, you have to be 100% clear. Wolf speaks quickly because he’s a hustler so you have to articulate the words carefully while keeping the intensity going, because he is a big personality. You have to be on the ball and get your mouth around the words.

Currently touring around the UK and preparing to open at The Playhouse tomorrow, Ray says he is already attached to Wolf: “You get emotionally involved with your character of course. It’s hard not to because racism is still happening today. It hasn’t gone away.

“The play also touches on the gentrification of certain areas as seen at Grenfell Tower and Kensington Council, so it’s all relatable.” 

Staged by Royal & Derngate and English Touring Theatre, and directed by Nancy Medina, the companies and cast hope to attract a younger, more diverse audience to see the play.

“All theatre should be an inspiring experience. Wilson wanted his plays to inform, heal and uncover the truth. I didn’t get an education into black history, just slavery But this is about the Civil Rights Movement, which is so important. So we hope the audience will learn something as well,” Ray adds.

It’s not all serious though, with some lighter moments to break up the tone. “There are elements of comedy and banter. They are flashy dressers and it’s really pacy as well as beautifully deigned.

“But Two Trains Running is fundamentally about story-telling. Yes, you learn stuff but it stands up on its own as a story and it’s about where that takes you and introduces you to their world. It’s about capturing the human condition right across the generations.

So he’s enjoying it then? Ray laughs: “I was quite nervous at the beginning, which is weird for me, but  I wanted to honour Wilson’s work, even though he doesn’t make it easy for the actors. Wilson writes in a poetic, authentic, black way. It’s really beautiful but it’s a big mental work out.

“But to answer your question,  we got a standing ovation the other night, so yes it’s going well.

“I also can’t wait to come down to Oxford. Last time I was at the Playhouse was in 2014 so I’m looking forward to having a cycle around.”

Two Trains Running is at Oxford Playhouse from Tuesday until Saturday. Tickets at oxfordplayhouse.com or 01865 305305.

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