Huntington Theatre Curriculum Guide: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/august-wilson-monologue-competition/awmc-plays/two-trains-running/
You-Tube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC
Week 6 – Two Trains Running
1. Title from a blues song by McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. Still A Fool. Worth the listening. Railroads and trains played an essential role in America’s westward expansion, and in the migration of blacks from the rural south to the industrialized North.
Well, now, there’s two, there’s two trains running
Well, they ain’t never, no, going my way
Well, now, one run at midnight and the other one,
Running just ‘fore day,
It’s running just ‘fore day,
It’s running just ‘fore day
Oh Lord. Sure ‘nough they is
2. The Non-stop personal narratives in Two Trains Running don’t really fit the normal pattern for play construction we have discussed. Even in previous Wilson plays there seems to be more linear structure. Here characters pop in and out, telling their stories in an almost isolated way. Is Wilson changing the format? Is this a move signifying an embrace of modernism or a return to neoclassicism? Or even a foretaste of postmodernism?
3. Plays, like poetry, are autobiographic, ethnographic, and meta-poetic. Two Trains Running shows Wilson’s development as a playwright, and draws on his background as a short-order cook in Pittsburgh as a young man. Also shows his exposure to such 1960’s luminaries as Malcolm X and his brand of theeory black nationalism, Martin Luther King, Jr and his theory of political nonviolence, and Pittsburgh’s Prophet Samuel (a composite of Washington’s Daddy Grace, New York’s Father Divine, and Chicago’s Elijah Muhammad).
Ethnographic in that plays portray the setting, the scene, the immediate environment of the play, in this case, Memphis’s restaurant. The play is set in the late 1960’s. Urban renewal in cities is a key element of the play’s plot and the principal core around which revolve the various narratives of the characters, all restaurant diners.
Finally, plays are meta-poetic in that they say something about plays themselves, the play’s structure, how the action is organized around the plots (or several plots, in this case). How the play begins, how it proceeds and how it ends are all tell-tale signs of the play’s meta-poetic nature.
4. Holloway = Toledo (Ma Rainey) = Bono (Fences) = Doaker (Piano Lesson) = Bynum (Joe Turner). Similarities in these characters as archetypes of human behavior. Older men, survivors, who sort of keep the narrative(s) on track.
5. Risa = Rose (Fences) = Berniece (Piano Lesson) = Ma Rainey = Bertha (Joe Turner). Strong female figures in the plays so far who relate to male characters in various ways, but always as a central, stabilizing factor.
Risa in Two Trains Running is kind to Hambone, for example, and give Sterling the time of day when no one else does. She manages the restaurant and keeps it “running” as the central location in action. Her self-mutilation is not something that other Wilson women have done in overt ways, but it represents a self-sacrifice, physicalized, that they all have performed. (Let’s not over simplify things, however.)
6. Hambone = Gabriel (Fences) = Sylvester (Ma Rainey). Male characters with a physical handicap who are central to the story as it unwinds (He gonna give me my ham…I want my ham!)
7. And who is the Wilson Warrior? Sterling would be my pick, Sterling who comes from humble and horrible origins, abandoned, orphaned, incarcerated, fired from his job, and excluded from economic development in industrial Pittsburgh by a stupid catch-22. Yet he fantasizes about the love of his life, externalizes that fantasy onto Risa, and finally finds redemption in committing a crime to pay homage to Hambone.
Aunt Ester finally appears (but not quite, though we know she is there). There is this triangular thing, a choice between Aunt Ester’s spiritual path, Malcolm X’s black nationalism, and Prophet Samuel’s salvation here-and-now take on things.
West, the undertaker, who knows all about how the city runs, presents a type of developmental redemption moving from a life of petty criminal activity to being a respectable business operator. But Holloway thinks West still has dirt on his hands, notwithstanding the black gloves he wears. West is without love in his life since his wife died.
Wolf makes a good living running numbers in the black community for the downtown mob. But he is unhappy because of his loneliness.
Memphis: owns the restaurant that Risa runs. Was chased out of the South when he tried to run a farm he bought. Wants to return to claim his property, but also wants a good value for his restaurant from the redevelopment commission so he can open a bigger restaurant in another part of town.
postscript. 4/17/2018, after seeing the play performed at Arena Stage.
Much to be said about August Wilson’s personal experience with the 1960’s and how that may have informed his crafting of the play. His time as a short order cook, for example, and his short fling with the Nation of Islam, his failed marriage, even the poetry he had published in the Negro Digest are all testament to his direct experience with the 1960’s, how it shaped him, and how it may have influenced his thinking in writing the play.
Risa finally gets that jukebox to work. It plays Aretha Franklin’s version of Take a Look.
events of the late 60’s
Malcolm X is assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Months later, writer Alex Haley publishes The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Amiri Baraka and August Wilson both leave the Nation of Islam.
The Watts Riot occurs in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Thirty-four people are reportedly killed and one thousand are injured in a riot that lasted five days.
Stokeley Carmichael becomes the chairperson of SNCC and immediately changes its focus to the idea of black power, a definite break from historical civil rights tactics.
The Black Panther Party is founded in California by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. King delivers his first speech concerning the Vietnam War. Race riots take place in Lansing, Mich., and Cleveland, OH.
Edward Brooke becomes the first African-American to be elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate. Brooke serves the state of Massachusetts.
H. Rap Brown becomes chairperson of SNCC.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that states cannot ban interracial marriage in the Loving v. Virginia case.
Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Albert William Johnson opens an Oldsmobile dealership in an African-American neighborhood in Chicago. He is the first African-American to be awarded a dealership from a major automobile company.
King is murdered in Memphis. Riots ensue in 125 cities throughout the United States. Within seven days of King’s assassination, an estimated 46 people are killed and 35,000 are injured. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 is established by Congress, banning discrimination in housing sales and rentals.
The Poor People’s Campaign galvanizes 50,000 demonstrators to Washington D.C.
After winning first and third place respectively at the Olympics in Mexico City, Tommy Smith and John Carlos raise clenched fists in solidarity with other African-Americans. As a result, both are suspended.
Nothing is wasted or superfluous in August Wilson’s plays. So I think we have to assume meaning behind the fact that the only song that plays on the jukebox in Memphis’ diner is Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look, from her Aretha Sings the Blues Album.
Even though the title of the tune is only revealed late in the play, we know throughout that the jukebox is broken and only plays one song, we just don’t know what that song is. I almost assumed it was Muddy Waters Still the Same, since embedded in the lyrics is one source of the play’s title, Two Trains Running. But beyond the title and one mention by Memphis, “Two Trains Running” seldom shows up in the text.
I am thinking the difference between the two blues songs may hold a clue for us. The Muddy Waters tune is downbeat, even for the blues. Two trains, neither one going in the direction of the destination he desires. Reminds me a bit of that Doaker passage in Act 1 of The Piano Lesson (but let’s not go there right now…). Allen Toussaint’s Take A Look, on the other hand, whose lyrics are covered by many top vocalists (including Aretha Franklin) and sampled by even more rappers, presents a more even handed look at reality, and perhaps even cautious optimism about choices for the future, which I think is a theme of Wilson’s play:
“Take A Look”
Take a look in the mirror, look at yourself
But don’t you look too close
‘Cause you just might see
The person that you hate the most
Lord, what’s happenin’ to this human race?
I can’t even see one friendly face
Brothers fight brothers and sisters wink their eyes
While silver tongues bear fruits of poison lies
Just take a look at your children born innocent
Every boy and every girl
Denyin’ themselves a real chance
To build a better world
Dear Lord, dear Lord, what’s happenin’ to your precious dream?
It’s washin’ away on a bloody bloody stream
Take a look at your children before it’s too late
And tell them nobody wins when the prize is hate.
But back to the play.
A couple of things I’d like to highlight. One, this play has more mentions of the N-word than any other of Wilson’s plays, 82 mentions by one count. And more lengthy discussions, especially by Holloway, that include multiple repetitions of the N-Word, i.e., “stacking niggers,” “niggers” mentioned with “guns,” etc. I don’t think this is by accident. I think Wilson is trying to make a point. That point is that despite and because of the repeated mentioning of the N-word, this play is not about race or racism. It is about urban renewal and the resulting “spatial deconcentration” of the black business and urban business community. It is about incarceration and the resulting impact on the community. It is about the interplay between church-based hope and solutions (Prophet Samuel) and spiritual-based outcomes (Aunt Ester) and social movement projections (King, Malcolm X, their deaths and the rallies to promote change that ensued in their wakes). It is about relationships. It is about having jobs and doing work (in the case of Wolf, on the margins of legality) to achieve reasonable economic and social goals. It is even about mentoring. But it is not ABOUT race and racism, as such. I think this was a clear message from Wilson through the characters in this play. This Philadelphia review goes into greater depth about the aboutness of the play.
Let’s also look at the continuity of character across Holloway, Bynum (Joe Turner), Doaker (The Piano Lesson) and Toledo (Ma Rainey), the older guy-type, sage, voice of common sense and experience, and the survivor. Holloway has carefully made his choice for Aunt Ester over Malcolm X and Prophet Samuel, although he knows the history of each and how they came into prominence. Holloway also professes special insight into Hambone’s behavior, giving him more credit than most for his seemingly erratic ways. Perhaps there is another continuity of character across Memphis, Seth (Joe Turner), and Becker (Jitney), that is, the entrepreneur who operates on the economy’s margin, making tough decisions to keep the employment machine running. As someone in the group said, “we keep on running across the same cast of characters.” Well, almost, but not quite.
Glossary of terms: https://twotrainsrunning.weebly.com/glossery-of-terms-and-references.html
OK. Just some random notes and thoughts after our group discussion to “close out” Two Trains Running.
Going through each character and his/her contribution(s) to the various plot lines was an interesting way to summarize the play and open up various lines of discussion. It was mentioned that outside his long monologue about “niggers and guns,” Holloway makes no mention of gun violence like some of the other characters.
We spoke at some length about the possible causes of Hambone’s affliction and I think we agreed that the injustice he experienced may not have been sufficient cause for his obsessive fixation(s) in the play. “He gon’ give me my ham!” Upon Hambone’s death we learn that he had lots of cuts and scars on his body. That was connected to Risa’s cuts and self-mutilation, scarification rituals, etc., which steered our discussion to the topic of anorexia. Sterling, it was noted, had a special connection to Hambone, and he also had a special connection, attraction to Risa. Risa was very sympathetic and caring with Hambone. The three, Risa, Hambone, and Sterling, formed a sort of mutual triad.
Wolf, the numbers runner, was pretty much a static character throughout. He has a special, though understated affection for Risa, always saying nice things to her and claiming to have a special knowledge of her among the menfolk. Equally, Wolf has a distaste for West and doesn’t want him handing his body when he dies.
Memphis was connected in our discussion to Seth (in Joe Turner) and Caesar Wilkes (in Gem) as a self-made man. He was also described as often mean and cruel to both Hambone and to Risa and it was obvious he was hateful to his wife, though his behavior towards her escaped his own awareness. The play directions say he has “impeccable logic,” and that may be Wilsonian tongue in cheek.
Risa is referred to in the group as the Victorian heroine, long suffering, and angelic. She keeps the diner running and has no fear for her job, despite Memphis’s continuous complaints. She reminds me of Black Mary in Gem, enduring the constant flow of criticisms from Aunt Ester.
West, the undertaker, has a storied history, from petty crime and marginal living to upright and successful entrepreneurism. We postulate that his black gloves may be a cover for eczema or skin damage from embalming fluid. He pays “Mason” to guard his funeral parlor.
Now for some notes I took in the actual text.
Memphis is the father of four children. Still his wife left him. Memphis resents that Risa donates money to Prophet Samuel.
A man named Zanelli runs the jukebox service.
Sterling is “fresh” out of prison and that socialization is a big part of his personality. He is caught in a Catch-22 with regard to work and union membership in Pittsburgh.
Holloway is a big advocate of Aunt Ester’s counseling services. He draws the link between Aunt Ester and Prophet Samuel.
I scribbled in the margins, “Does Hambone represent blacks who demand reparations?”
Memphis mentions a Mr. Stovall, also mentioned in The Piano Lesson.
Early in Scene Two Memphis mentions “two trains running every day.”
Holloway’s mention of “stacking niggers” reminds me of mass incarceration. It also brings to mind images of the middle passage, kidnapped Africans packed like sardines in the hull of slave ships.
Memphis says “dead men don’t have birthdays” in reference to a Malcolm X celebration.
Holloway points out the superiority of Aunt Ester to Malcolm X anyway.
Sterling mentions the time he spent at Toner Institute.
Memphis’s failure to understand the clause in his deed referencing eminent domain makes me question his level of literacy.
Memphis’s monologue at the end of Act One is especially poignant and shows he is at least capable of deep feeling.
Hambone learns to say “United we stand,” but he never repeats “Malcolm Lives.”
West mentions burying an elderly lady, Miss Sarah Degree, also mentioned in Seven Guitars and the person who provides home remedies. In real life, Sarah Degree was a lady in Wilson’s childhood who took neighborhood children to Sunday School and church.
Wolf speaks of two lady friends he has in Atlanta and quotes, without attribution, Floyd Barton’s song, “That’s all right.”
Risa says Prophet Samuel was “sent by God to help the colored people get justice.”
Holloway believes in the supernatural.
West tells Sterling to get a small cup instead of a ten-gallon bucket, advice that Wilson received from one of his mentors during his youth.
Risa plays Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look on the juke box, dances with and kisses Sterling.
Risa refuses to see Hambone in the casket, just as she refused to see Prophet Samuel, saying in both cases, “I don’t want to see him that way.”
Pre-group notes (4.24.2019)
Looking for a different angle this reading.
Some critics say Two Trains Running doesn’t capture the vitality of the 1960’s decade the way, say, Fences captures the angst of the 1950’s. I have to give that some thought. The play is set in 1969, after all the excitement of the 1960’s has passed. The greening of American, the civil rights activism, Woodstock, all that stuff has come and gone. Well, maybe not Woodstock. The Kennedy’s have been killed and there is no more hope for Camelot. King and Malcolm X have been killed and those dreams ended. I think by 1969 all the political fantasies are over and done with and people, a bit dazed and perhaps shell-shocked, are just trying to find their way to some level of equilibrium, any steady state that will let them get on with their lives. I think this juncture is where Wilson has placed his 1960’s play.
There is a passing reference to King, sandwiched in between long monologues about Malcolm X. Memphis says,
“They killed Martin. If they did that to him you can imagine what they do to me or you.”
Earlier he says of Malcolm X,
“Malcolm X is dead. Malcolm ain’t having no more birthdays. Dead men don’t have birthdays.”
And later he deconstructs the Freedom, Justice and Equality of the Nation of Islam by saying 1) freedom is heavy; 2) ain’t no justice; and 3) equality is a nonstarter because people are just not equal to one another. Then he add a crown to the Black is Beautiful movement by saying its followers sound as if they are trying to convince themselves their blackness is beauty.
Holloway has the solution. When asked why he didn’t become a Malcolm X follower in the early days of his preaching in Pittsburgh, Holloway responds that he didn’t need to as long as he knew the way to Aunt Ester’s.
That brings us to an important point in the play. Participation in the mass movements of the day is downplayed, and support for local leaders, like Prophet Samuel and Aunt Ester is highlighted. Risa has been paying tithes to Prophet Samuel’s church, not because she believes in some supernatural intervention, but because she believes Prophet Samuel actually helps people with legal issues on a day to day basis. Holloway recommends Aunt Ester because he can see a change she made in his relationship with his father. These are tangible benefits with certain payoff. Hambone wants his ham and he petitions for it daily with Mr Lutz. I think Memphis’ logic would say even Hambone has a better chance of achieving his objective than some others in the play.
In Scene Three, Sterling makes a reference to Toner Institute, a local orphanage where he grew up. Again, such a place really did exist. It provided a home/school environment to boys from broken or disruptive homes and remained in existence until 1977. In later years, enrollment shrunk along with county and state subsidies in a time of rising prices.
Then there is the ever-present issue of urban renewal breathing down the backs of not only the diner owner, Memphis, but all the folks for which the diner has become a type of second home. In most places where it was applied, urban renewal became a sort of pipe dream whose goals were never achieved. Long standing neighborhoods were destroyed, families were decimated along with institutions like churches, community centers, and businesses.
This all became a part of the overall environmental malaise of the late 60’s, which, it might be argued, is accurately depicted in the Wilson play. The title, Two Trains Running, may suggest that there are some options available, both in terms of mobility, upward or downward, and in terms of simple navigation. Memphis has a dream of going back south to reclaim his farm, but once he gets his compensation his focus changes to getting a bigger restaurant in a better commercial part of town. By the way, reflecting back on last week’s discussion, there is an indication that Memphis is functionally illiterate when, at the end of Act One, he makes mention of a clause in the deed to his property referencing eminent domain that he doesn’t really understand. Similarly, the deed to his property down south also had a “hidden” clause that perhaps was only hidden to him because he could not read.
Stovall is mentioned and I wonder is it the same Stovall as in The Piano Lesson? Also, Sarah Degree is mentioned and she was mentioned previously in Seven Guitars as the provider of home remedies to Hedley.
Two Trains Running, set in 1969, covers a lot of territory. Let’s get started.
There’s much to be said, written and discussed about the play’s title, Two Trains Running. Wilson reveals in an interview with the dramaturg, Richard Pettengill, that
“There are two ideas in the play, or at least two ideas that have confronted black America since Emancipation, the ideas of cultural assimilation and cultural separatism. These were, in my mind, the two trains. I wanted to write a play about a character for whom neither of these two trains were working. He had to build a new railroad in order to get to where he’s going, because the trains are not going his way. That was the idea when I started out exploring.”
There is an element here from the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues tune, whose lyrics, or an excerpt of them, form the epigraph of an earlier play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:
“They tore the railroad down
So the Sunday Special can’t run
I’m going away baby
Build me a railroad of my own.”
And there is a second glimpse into this idea, I think, in the following Doaker monologue in The Piano Lesson, Act 1, Scene 1:
“They go so many trains out there they have a hard time keeping them from running into each other. Got trains going every which way. Got people on all of them. Somebody going where somebody just left. If everybody stay in one place I believe this would be a better world.”
That gets us to a starting point, at least. But as we learn from reading the play, it is only a framework, these two trains. Because in the play we see not two but four options pointed out, though at this point, it is suggested that only three are plausible. By 1969, the accommodationist model highlighted by Kingian non-violence has long since been abandoned and only receives fleeting mention in the diner discussions. What’s left are three discussable routes to inner and outer peace and progress, Prophet Samuel, Malcolm X, and Aunt Ester, and these three receive the bulk of mention as the play unwinds.
A very good review on the “aboutness”of the play: http://phindie.com/11061-dear-white-people-two-trains-running-is-not-about-race/
Memphis, the cafe owner, has all the answers except why his wife left him two months before. They have four children. Risa, who works for Memphis in the cafe, has an idea.
Prophet Samuel is being buried on a Tuesday. Tuesday in Yoruba is Isegun, Day of Victory or Triumph. Aunt Ester sees visitors on Tuesdays. Prophet Samuel reminds us of Father Divine and Daddy Grace.
Hambone and Risa have a natural affinity. We later learn they both are involved in scarification.
“In some African tribes, it was like wearing your identity card on your face. True, some may hate that, but this was a mark of pride, not shame. In most African cultures, it was a major aesthetic and cultural component as can be seen on sculptures in museums around the world. Scarification patterns on sculptures are not only marks of beauty, but marks of one’s lineage as well, and in some cases protection against evil spirits. Lastly, in Africa like in Polynesia, scarification is more visible on darker skinned people than say, tattoos.” https://afrolegends.com/2015/09/16/scarification-an-ancient-african-tattoo-culture/
A man named Zanelli is behind in servicing the Jukebox. He is the “bringer” of music to the cafe, he controls the atmosphere. The jukebox only plays one song when it works, Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look” (on the playlist). There a several reference to the broken jukebox throughout the play, a sort of sounding board for the general state of things. From Wikipedia:
Jukeboxes were most popular from the 1940s through the mid-1960s, particularly during the 1950s. By the middle of the 1940s, three-quarters of the records produced in America went into jukeboxes. Billboard published a record chart measuring jukebox play during the 1950s, which briefly became a component of the Hot 100; by 1959, the jukebox’s popularity had waned to the point where Billboard ceased publishing the chart and stopped collecting jukebox play data.
Traditional jukeboxes once were an important source of income for record publishers. Jukeboxes received the newest recordings first. Theybecame an important market-testing device for new music, since they tallied the number of plays for each title. They offered a means for the listener to control the music outside of their home, before audio technology became portable. They played music on demand without commercials. They also offered the opportunity for high fidelity listening before home high fidelity equipment became affordable.
The invention of the portable radio in the 1950s and the portable cassette tape deck in the 1960s were key factors in the decline of the jukebox. They enabled people to have their own selection of music with them, wherever they were. Jukeboxes became a dying industry during the 1970s, before being revived somewhat by compact disc jukeboxes during the 1980s and 1990s, followed by digital jukeboxes using the MP3 format. While jukeboxes maintain popularity in bars, they have fallen out of favor with what were once their more lucrative locations—restaurants, diners, military barracks, video arcades, and laundromats.
Holloway is a true believer in Aunt Ester, just as Risa is a true believer in Prophet Samuel. Their beliefs seem to co-exist throughout the play. Only Memphis criticizes Risa, and only West criticizes Holloway.
Aunt Esther here and in her other appearances is a true Stoic, advising her visitors always to change the way they look at a situation or a problem. She requires them to throw money into the river, i.e., to lessen their psychological dependence on money as a solution to their problems.
Memphis reminds one of Seth in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone when it comes to “traditional” beliefs, though Seth is the first one to grab the harmonica when it’s time to Juba. To his credit, Memphis credits his victory in court to Aunt Ester, not to his white lawyer. We later learn that Memphis has reading disabilities.
Memphis has a pipe dream of reclaiming his land in Mississippi just like Hambone has a pipe dream of getting his ham. Both misled by false, unrealizable hopes. Memphis sees that pipe dream in Hambone, but does not see it in himself. Scholars compare this the Hope’sBar in O‘Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
Title cut: Two Trains Running. Ties to Doaker’s reflections on train motion in The Piano Lesson. Stovall, who Lymon was indentured to in The Piano Lesson, sold Memphis land without water rights in Two Trains Running, then led a bunch of men in chasing Memphis off the land and slaughtering his mule.
Mass incarceration = stacking niggers? Still working that one out.
Holloway mentions a little bit of history of Prophet Samuel, who was known as Reverend Samuel before he visited with Aunt Ester. Holloway makes a passing reference to Prophet Samuel wearing robes, baptizing people in the river, and going barefooted. That final reference reminded me of a personality known as the Barefoot Prophet who had a small following in my hometown in the 20’s and 30’s, along with his successor who was known as Mr. Bobo. Here is a bit of info: https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/elder-clayhorn-martin-the-barefoot-prophet-in-harlem-1929/
Philmore the customer from Jitney shows up in Two Trains selling a property to West.
Does Memphis’ criticism of “Black Is Beautiful” apply to “Black Lives Matter?” At least “Black is beautiful” was an identity and not a tautology.
Sterling mentions being brought up in an orphanage, Toner Institute. That orphanage really existed and operated until 1977, when State and county subsidies could not keep up with rising operational costs. http://www.brooklineconnection.com/history/Schools/TonerInstitute.html
Bubba Boy’s wife overdosed. It is the only drug-related death in the Cycle.
Memphis had a cathartic experience when his mother dies. He cried, things changed, looked differently. He felt he had been “cut loose.”
West visited Aunt Ester and refused to pay by putting money in the river. Memphis visited and complied with good results.