week 6 – Two Trains Running

Still a Fool – Muddy Waters

Still a Fool – Rolling Stones

Some notes. 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
Oh well

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, tell 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 backgraound as a short-order cook in Pittsburgh as a young man. Also shows his exposure to such 60’s luminaries as Malcolm X and his black nationalism, Martin Luther King, Jr and his 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, in the late 60’s, urban renewal in cities, 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 women figures in the plays so far who relate to male characters in various ways, but always a central, stabilizing factor. Risa in Two Trains Running is always 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, Stering who comes from humble and horrible origins, abandoned, orphaned, incarcerated, fired from his job, and excluded from economic development in industrial Pittsburgh by a stupic catch-22. Yet he fantasizes about the love of his life, externalizes that fantasy on Risa, and finally finds redemption in commiting 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 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 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 60’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 60’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.

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.

Stokley 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.

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.
Arthur Ashe is the first African-American to win the Men’s Singles at the U.S. Open.


Photographer Moneta Sleet, Jr. becomes the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize in Photography.
Howard N. Lee becomes the first African-American may of Chapel Hill, NC. He is also the first African-American mayor of a southern city that is predominately white.
Black Panther leaders Mark Clarke and Fred Hampton are killed in Chicago by police officers.
Guitarist Jimi Hendrix headlines the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York.
Duke Ellington is awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Richard B. Nixon.

3 thoughts on “week 6 – Two Trains Running

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