Wayne Harris Artfully Merges Three Angles on Prostitution
by Robert M. Gardner
Writer-Director Wayne Harris has re-opened his masterpiece “Train Stories” at The Marsh, Berkeley. His three storytellers have separate views of a railroad story from the 1948 pre-Civil Rights time. Each man has a singular revelation about a girl named Jesse Blueribbons.
As Elder Brown, an older, retired railway worker, Harris tells his story from the back of the stage. His two middle-aged collaborators—John Henry (dignified Kirk Waller) and Tyrone Little (versatile Tony Cyprian)—fill in their views, each spotlighted in turn.
As Pullman porter John Henry, Waller recalls Jesse, a precocious little girl who sold shaved ice. He is charmed and loyally follows her from childhood to blooming womanhood. She earns the name Blueribbons because she always wins footraces, even against the boys.
Elder Brown worked as a leader of the Gandy Dancers, the men who worked in unison to move heavy rails into place. Brown explains that the laborers work better when he gives them a song:
They called us Gandy Dancers! Yes, lord … we be on that rail line, straightening that track! 10-pound Sledgehammer in yo’ hand…and you got to strike that head clean… and it take mo’ than one man to move that rail!
Brown and John Henry find ways to survive in the white man’s world. Dapper in his Pullman uniform, Henry is inspired to toil relentlessly like his namesake. Like the Black folk-hero, John Henry has risen to rule the dining car, taking pride in his work. His job on the railroad is his ticket to escape from the fields: “In Little Rock you had prestige if you was colored and working on the railroad.”
John Henry looks down upon his shirttail cousin, the sleazy pimp Tyrone Little. Little rides the rails to collect money from prostitutes. He knows the white man’s secrets about race and sex. Little makes money by using and abusing the women he lures into prostitution, climaxing in a gripping scene where John Henry confronts a pimp on board the train to protect Jesse!
Just a step away from slavery, each man laments the cards he has been dealt: “I got to tell you…. this world…. this America, rips at a black man keeps rippin’ at him till all he see is the filth and the anger… and then he turns that anger on everybody and everything in his path.” Brown faces the challenge pragmatically, Henry idealistically, and Little cynically.
John Henry sees her as a young African queen, to be honored and cherished. But the pimp treats her brutally, like a piece of meat.
When Harris comes forward to lead us in singing “Lift Every Voice,” the Black National Anthem, we are profoundly moved. By the second line, everyone joins in singing. Like the anthem, “Train Stories” is inspiring, hopeful, yet bittersweet.
Wayne Harris’s play shows that the Black struggle since slavery has run into many dead ends. Harris leaves no doubt that the struggle goes on—an essential tale that expands our understanding and our empathy. A fascinating merging of real-life train stories.
“Train Stories” –written & directed by Wayne Harris, stage managed by Blake Radiant, at The Marsh, Berkeley. Info: TheMarsh.org – Fridays, to October 26, 2023.
Cast: Kirk Waller, Tony Cyprien, and Wayne Harris.
Banner photo: Wayne Harris (Elder Brown). Photos by Dianne Woods