Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The overriding theme of Two Trains Running is the bitter economic reality of urban life and the need to preserve African American culture amid such conditions. For Wilson, the primary means of maintaining and celebrating African American culture is the blues. Calling it “a philosophical system,” Wilson claims that, with the blues, “You get the ideas and attitudes of the people as part of the oral tradition.” Understanding the importance of the African American musical heritage is crucial to any analysis of Wilson’s drama. Not only is the title taken from an old jazz tune, but the narrative structure itself is also derived from the blues. The pace of the play is slow and its tone melancholy; the drama is language-oriented, not action-driven. As part of the blues and the oral tradition, such characters as Memphis, Holloway, Wolf, and Sterling become storytellers—storytelling being both an act of memory and a means of communion in this otherwise fragmented urban landscape.

In keeping with Wilson’s belief that the great migration of southern blacks to the North was a mistake, the play explores a powerful economic theme: specifically, a series of broken or unfulfilled contracts, with African Americans on the losing end. Most important is the clause that the city government tries to use to deprive Memphis of a fair price and his claim that he has a clause of his own. The play’s exposition, however, reveals an earlier contract dispute: Memphis lost his farm because the deed stated that the discovery of water on the land would nullify the sale. In addition, there is the contract dispute that left Hambone unpaid. Holloway...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

Two Trains Running Themes

White Exploitation and Black Power
Two Trains Running is an explicitly political play that makes extended...

(The entire section is 694 words.)