Memphis Lee’s small restaurant is the setting of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. Risa, a young woman who has scarred her legs with a razor to deflect the sexual interest of men, is the restaurant’s cook and waitress. The rest of the African American cast are male and include, among others, Sterling, an unemployed young man recently released from prison; Holloway, a retired house painter; and Hambone, who is mentally retarded.
The gossip, debates, philosophizing, and storytelling that take place in Memphis’ restaurant reflect the oral tradition of African American culture. Some critics note that the characters engaged in the talk seem detached from the racial riots, assassinations, and antiwar protests that marked the late 1960s, when the play takes place. Wilson responds by saying that he was not interested in writing “what white folks think of as American history for the 1960’s.” He was interested in making the point that “by 1969 nothing has changed for the black man.”
One thing not changed by 1969 was economic injustice. Holloway notes that for centuries blacks worked hard for free, enriching white slaveholders. Once blacks have to be paid whites deny them work and call them lazy. The characters in Two Trains Running are directly affected by the whites’ ability to make and interpret rules, to the disadvantage of blacks. When Hambone painted a fence, the white butcher who hired him offered a chicken in payment instead of the promised ham. When Sterling wins at the numbers, the whites who run the game cut his winnings in half. When Memphis’ restaurant is scheduled to be taken over by the city, the whites in charge invoke a clause saying they do not have to pay his price.
Hambone dies without getting his ham, but his persistence in demanding it for more than nine years moves Memphis to donate fifty dollars for flowers for his funeral and moves Sterling to break into the butcher shop and steal a ham for his casket. By the end of the play Sterling has been transformed from a man unwilling to pay the price for love (he is reluctant to accept responsibility for others) to one who is willing to make a commitment to Risa, who seems willing to have a relationship with him. In this he has the blessing of Aunt Ester, reputedly 322 years old and an important offstage character. She symbolizes the wisdom of black experience in America, the wisdom of a people who survived against the odds. Memphis, too, has been transformed. He was run off his land in Mississippi years before, and he vowed one day to return seeking justice. “They got two trains running every day.” By the play’s end he wins his fight with the city, which agrees to pay more than his price for his restaurant, and he declares he will now follow through on his vow because, as he understands Aunt Ester to have told him: “If you drop the ball, you got to go back and pick it up.”
Prophet Samuel is dead. A former reverend, Prophet Samuel became a powerful leader and adviser in the Pittsburgh neighborhood in which Memphis Lee’s Restaurant is located, and he amassed both followers and money. Memphis was particularly skeptical of the prophet’s virtues even when he was alive, and he continues to express his skepticism. His waitress Risa, who was a devoted follower, defends Prophet Samuel from Memphis’s attacks.
Memphis is also troubled by the fate of his restaurant. It has been reasonably successful, but the city has decided to tear it town, along with all the other buildings in the neighborhood. Memphis has accepted the inevitable loss of his restaurant, but he has fixed a price, twenty-five thousand dollars, as the minimum he will accept from the city. West, the local funeral-home director, warns Memphis that he will only receive, at most, twelve thousand dollars, but Memphis remains committed to getting his...
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