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 assume it is 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”
But don’t you look too close
‘Cause you just might see
The person that you hate the mostLord, what’s happenin’ to this human race?
Brothers fight brothers and sisters wink their eyes
While silver tongues bear fruits of poison liesJust 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.
My notes from the last session go more into plot and character development.
Glossary of terms: https://twotrainsrunning.weebly.com/glossery-of-terms-and-references.html
This play contains several important Aunt Ester references, and says she is 349 years old in 1969–which means she was born around 1619 or 1620. It was in 1619 that the first 20 Africans were brought from Angola to Virginia and sold to the governor—they were possibly given the status of indentured servants, but in a sense that year marks the beginning of African history in North America (Note: Groups are gearing up for the quadricentennial celebrations next year, in 2019). The number of the house where she lived, 1839 Wylie Avenue, was, of course, the year of the slave mutiny on the ship Amistad. Was Aunt Esther’s name also a tip of the hat to the Aunt Esther character in the 1972-1977 sitcom Sanford and Son, a feisty advisor and supporter of young Lamont, the series’ protagonist?
Christopher Rawson did a 2009 piece in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette which points out how much Aunt Esther sounds like “ancestor,” and notes that it wasn’t till late in the play series that Wilson said he came to realize that she was the central character in his Cycle, which was why he then highlighted her in Gem of the Ocean. 1621 Wylie is where the play is set, but that is also the number of the house on Bedford where Daisy Wilson died.
The character Hambone, whose name is another name for the Juba dance we saw in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (and it also suggests he is one of the black leftovers Toledo describes in Ma Rainey) began protesting 10 years earlier, around 1959, the ham he did not get from Lutz for painting his fence— about the time of the first lunch Woolworth counter sit-in in Greensboro NC on 2/1/60 according to Rawson. He thinks Wilson was referencing the sit-ins with Hambone’s demand for his ham. And I think Wilson’s ironic joke seems to be that it’s Memphis who is always attempting to refuse Hambone service at his restaurant “counter”—and demanding that Hambone leave. (Note: Coincidentally, immediately (1 month later) following the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, there were similar sit-ins in Memphis TN).
The events surrounding actual time when the play is set include Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 and also include the conviction of James Earl Ray for that murder in 1969 and the killing of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. (No mention of Woodstock, moonlanding, Stonewall riots or Mohammed Ali’s conviction for draft evasion, all the same year.)
MLK is referenced as is Martin and Malcolm X is emphasized — and Memphis’ long speeches give us another way of looking at the Freedom Now and Black is Beautiful movements. Memphis actually sounds to me like a 1960s Clarence Thomas or Ben Carson prototype—“You born free—it’s up to you to maintain it,” black individualist who neither credits the value of group movements nor sees the use of them. He’s no fool—he doesn’t think anyone will ever give anything voluntarily to black people. He had the experience of losing the land he bought from Stovall, his mule and almost his life before coming to Pittsburgh. Interestingly, Muddy Waters lived on the Stovall Plantation when Alan Lomax first recorded an album of his music there —I don’t know if it had the song with the two trains line in it.
But Memphis also believes—and in the end proves—it is possible to get some justice, even if it’s only monetary compensation for the negative effects of gentrification. Memphis makes me think of Troy Maxson, and of Becker, but a less embittered, more accomplished version of them — is that because of the passage of a generation of time?
Patchneck Red, mentioned in Two Trains, apparently was a real gambler/hustler in Pittsburgh—also mentioned by Wining Boy in Act II Scene 5 of The Piano Lesson. Sterling’s name suggests he’s genuine, the real thing, and his plight as an ex-con looking for work certainly rings true. But he wins at the numbers thanks to Risa and kills no one over the reduced payment, which suggests his future (per Aunt Esther’s endorsement) with her may be optimistic. (Note: Sterling reappears in a later play, Radio Golf). (Note: West mentions burying Miss Sarah Degree, the name of a woman in Wilson’s childhood who gathered all the neighborhood children together to take them to Sunday school at the nearby Catholic Church).
The two trains running metaphor in the play’s name has now accumulated several meanings—the crash referenced in Ma Rainey by Toledo, maybe in this play suggesting old and newer black value systems which are colliding); and the crossing of the Southern and the Yazoo Delta — the mystical crossroads in Piano Lesson—certainly present at Aunt Esther’s home in this play; and Memphis’ “two trains running” comment in this play. As to Esther’s reward for her wisdom: how do the twenties thrown in the river get to her? Is this an oblique reference to pennies in a wishing well, or the payment of homage (two pennies) to cross the river to see to one’s ancestors (which we will see in Gem of the Ocean)?
Much of the plot is taken up with the great event of the week, Prophet Samuel’s funeral. In the Bible, Samuel had been the prophet responsible for keeping King Saul close to God. When Saul, less spiritual than Samuel, turned away from God, Samuel followed God’s instruction to anoint David the next king—when Samuel died, both kings and the nation of Israel were immensely saddened. Since the conflict between Christian beliefs and ancestral ones, and its potential reconciliation is a central theme in Wilson’s plays, I think his choice of Prophet Samuel—also a judge and moral leader Biblically—must be meaningful. Can Christian generosity like Risa’s survive Mammon, the god of material things who compensates loss of community, hearth and home with checks for $35,000?
Risa’s leg cutting suggests African scarification rituals, rites of passage, as well as self-cutting (already happening in the 1970s) as a way to release psychic pain. We see a similar self-cutting by Herald Loomis in Joe Turner and by Levee in Ma Rainey. More often scars that would in traditional African cultures suggest fertility and health (pathogen resistance) would be on exposed skin of breasts or abdomen, but since those areas are not exposed in Two Trains, the legs—the 5 and 7 scars—with the 1 set of genitals between — Risa’s winning number — may suggest that she successfully combines ancestral and Christian strengths and will be very lucky for Sterling, even if Memphis tends to treat her like a scullery maid, crassly ordering her around and implying she’s dumb.
This play is jam-packed with numbers—it is framed by the cost of restaurant meals on the menu at the onset, and concludes with $35,000 check and a ham. Running through it are numbers racket numbers, the borrowing of dollars and paying of wages, numbers of years, Aunt Esther’s $20 payments and numbers of women with whom Wolf carries on. Is Wilson using all these images of daily commerce to suggest that’s what the 60s had become—God dead (Prophet Samuel’s burial) and money is what people worship. Is there irony in the fact that MLK and Malcolm X get are mentioned but Samuel is wept over? Hard to say.