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.”