nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 13, 2008
Same Train is a collection of songs and stories and spoken-word vignettes reflecting the African American experience of the past hundred years. Playwright Levy Lee Simon has put seven tales on stage, set to the music of composer Mark Bruckner; both of these creators of Same Train are part of the show's ensemble, with Bruckner on piano and percussion and Simon speaking many of his own words along with six other actor/singers.
Serving as a kind of narrator—or, perhaps more accurately, the glue holding the divergent strands together—is Cedric Turner as a timeless African American from South Carolina named Old Man Henry. Perched above the proceedings at the top of Jorge Dieppa's two-tiered set, he leads us into each of the segments of Same Train with an apropos anecdote, usually about his lifelong friend Butterbean, with whom he got into a variety of scrapes over the course of time. Turner delivers many of these interludes accompanying himself on guitar, which he wields with an effortless mastery; there is never anything so sublime in this show as when Turner sings and plays the blues.
But there is a great deal else in the show, and much of it is of interest. The stories recounted here, in song, poetry, and prose, cover many of the familiar bases of African American life as it has been depicted in popular culture. There's a tale of two young men hitchhiking during college spring break to Florida, realizing the worst fears of one of them when they get stuck in an unfamiliar woods in the dark. Another piece is about a young man who gets caught up in the cycle of gang violence and drug dealing in Harlem; while a third shows us another man returning to his old Harlem neighborhood, where he meets up with an old flame who has become, apparently, a very busy lady of the evening (she protects herself with a trio of scary pit bulls, who provide the comic impetus for this particular vignette).
Less charted territory is covered in pieces like "Efumi," which has as its theme the troubling issue of female circumcision in Africa, and "Into the Night," about an African American cop who gets an unexpected assignment as he heads downtown from Harlem late one evening.
Simon and actors Eddie Goines and Harrison Lee narrate or act out each of the tales, with varying kinds of accompaniment and other participation offered by singers Ayeje Feamster and Kami Percinthe (plus Bruckner and bassist Tara Thierry).
The writing here is interesting; Simon has a distinctive voice, and his poetry in particular is impressive in places. But all of the seven stories feel too long—each piece takes an unexpected turn, but almost always it seems to take a long time until the twist arrives. Some editing by Simon and director Mary Beth Easley—say, to a tight, one-act, 90-minute evening—would really improve the pacing and potency of Same Train.