Some notes on Two Trains Running (04.27.2020)

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.

to be continued.

Youtube playlist

Session #3

Session #2 (including Carole Horn’s notes)

Session #1

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