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Train Stories 

A lurid, Faulkneresque tragedy in the voices of three engaging characters

Wednesday, Nov 3 2004
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Wayne Harris' terrific new one-man show at the Marsh deals with three characters on and around a Pullman car in the 1940s, who each tell fragments of a story about a lean and beautiful young woman named Jessie Blue Ribbons. John Henry, a grave and slightly ill-tempered porter, Tyrone Little, a jolly foul-mouthed pimp, and the Elder, an 85-year-old retired rail worker, "bo'n and raised in slav'ry," as he says, all circle their topic like slow-hunting hawks, talking about this and that in their vivid and distinctive ways, until you realize -- about three-quarters of the way in -- that you're listening to a lurid, Faulkner-esque tragedy in three voices. Sometimes the story moves too slowly, and you wish for less talk and a little more action, but the characters are engaging. "You want a story, it's gonna be nothin' but ol' train stories and lies," says John Henry to his silent listener (either a younger man on the Pullman staff or the audience). He goes on about the legendary John Henry, the rail worker who won a race against a steam drill; Tyrone Little talks like a half-drunk, New Orleans-sophisticated lout at a poker game; and the Elder is a disarming old man with an intense and nostalgic blues singer's voice. They build an elusive, fractured impression of Jessie Blue Ribbons and the young man she falls in love with, and their triple frame for the story -- the voice of conscience and responsibility, the voice of desire, the voice of history -- makes her tragedy not just racial, but human.

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