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 plotlines 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 led 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 own 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. And West, the undertaker, has a storied history, from petty crime and marginal living to upright and successful entrepreneurism. We postulated 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.
I think i may find it before Friday morning! Some critics say Two Trains Running doesn’t capture the vitality of the 60’s the way, say, Fences captures the angst of the 50’s. I have to give that some thought. The play is set in 1969, after all the excitement of the 60’s, 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, are just trying to find their way to some equilibrium, any steady state that will let them get on with their lives. I think this juncture is where Wilson has placed his 60’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 adds a 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, 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 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.
Carole’s excellent background notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/31/carole-horns-notes-on-two-trains-running-with-notes-links-and-annotations/
A very good review on the “aboutness”of the play: http://phindie.com/11061-dear-white-people-two-trains-running-is-not-about-race/
OK. Let’s stop here and discuss.