Columbia alums shine in Goodman Theatre play

Courtesy Liz Lauren
AC Smith

By Sadie Miller

Two Columbia alumni have returned to Chicago after successful stints on Broadway to act in the Goodman Theatre’s production of the late August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running,” which opened March 7.

A.C. Smith, a 1986 theatre graduate, plays the character West while Chester Gregory, a 1995 musical theatre graduate, plays Sterling. Both are familiar with Wilson’s work and said they were honored to be chosen by director Chuck Smith.

“Two Trains Running” is one in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of 10 plays by Wilson titled “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” Each play looks at a decade of African-American history in the 20th century, and “Two Trains Running,” set in 1969, examines the Civil Rights Movement.

Albert Williams, a senior lecturer in the Theatre Department who taught both Gregory and Smith while they attended Columbia, said the Goodman’s production of “Two Trains Running” is honoring the 10-year anniversary of Wilson’s death.

“It’s a very important production because there’s a lot of important things going on behind it,” Williams said. “This includes readings, lectures and public programming on Wilson and the impact of his work. To see two students from a decade apart now working in a play together, it’s a wonderful, rich circle of people coming together.”

Smith said performing “The Pittsburgh Cycle” is an integral part of his acting career and that he has been in every play of the series at least once, adding that this is his fourth time being cast in “Two Trains Running.”

“All of August’s plays are important to me because they speak to me,” Smith said.

Gregory is new to “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” He said he has long admired Wilson’s works as a chronicle of African-American history and was thrilled to be cast in “Two Trains Running.”

“This is my first August Wilson work, so this is important to me because I want to honor this man’s legacy and his work,” Gregory said. “You don’t often get a chance to work with writing this good in your career. When you run across writing so excellent and superb, it’s an actor’s dream.”

Gregory said he always wanted to work with director Chuck Smith and had reached out to him in the past about working together. Then, about a year ago, he got the call for “Two Trains Running.” Gregory said the experience [of working together] has been nothing but positive so far.

“I would love to do as much of [August Wilson’s] work as I can,” he said. “I’m so honored to do this work and this role.”

Smith and Gregory both started honing their craft at Columbia before their careers began. 

“It was the best thing I’d ever done,” Smith said. “I use Columbia’s education that I got there every day in every thing I do.”

Gregory, the first student to graduate from the college’s musical theatre program, also reflected fondly on his time at Columbia. He especially loved the concept of being taught by working professionals in the curriculum.

“That was appealing to me—people working in the field and teaching their profession,” Gregory said. “I don’t want to work with somebody who never worked as an actor.”

Gregory said he chose Columbia for its relaxed atmosphere and open admissions process and that he made the right decision.

“The techniques I learned at Columbia are still with me today,” Gregory said. “I would not have had that foundation that had me working consistently had it not been for Columbia.”