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...
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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 price before he will agree to the city’s demands.
Into this setting comes Sterling, a young man just out of the penitentiary and looking for work. When he asks for advice, Holloway tells him to go see Aunt Ester, a legendary sage who is said to be over three hundred years old and who always tells her visitors to throw twenty dollars into the river. Sterling remains noncommittal, but he is very interested in Risa. Risa, however, is resistant. She once took a razor and scarred her legs in order to avoid being treated as a sex object, and she seems disinterested in Sterling’s attentions. However, she does offer Sterling a lucky number to place a bet with Wolf, the neighborhood’s numbers runner.
Hambone arrives, much to the displeasure of Memphis, but Risa offers him some food. According to Memphis and Holloway, Hambone painted a fence for the local butcher over nine years ago with the expectation of receiving a ham. The white butcher attempted to pay him a chicken instead, and since that time, Hambone has been unable to...
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Part of his ten-play cycle, one for each decade of the century, Two Trains Running takes place in Pittsburgh in 1969 during a period of both hope and despair for African Americans.
Early in the decade, Jackie Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first black player to achieve such an honor. Registration of southern black voters reached new levels. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and the following year led three thousand people on a fifty-four-mile protest march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. Thurgood Marshall became the first black Supreme Court Justice in 1967, and in 1968 the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress.
Despite such progress, civil rights workers, black and white, were murdered as they attempted to secure equal rights for southern black people. Dr. King was murdered in 1968, as Malcolm X had been three years earlier. It is against such a backdrop that Wilson sets his play, which takes place in Memphis Lee’s homestyle family restaurant, a gathering place for black people that faces demolition as the neighborhood in which it is located encounters urban renewal.
The regulars at Lee’s are a mortician, a bookie, a street philosopher, and a man who is disturbed by petty injustices. Into the setting Wilson interposes Sterling, an African American who wants to preserve the spirit and philosophy of Malcolm X.
Sterling, a former convict, begins to hit on Risa, the restaurant’s sole waitress and cook, who has disfigured herself to discourage the sorts of advances that Sterling is making. Meanwhile, Memphis Lee has larger concerns, most notably his struggle with city hall to get at least a fair price for his restaurant if and when it is razed.
In this play, Wilson forces his characters to look into themselves and to discover who they really are and what they really want. Memphis certainly is ambiguous. He would like to keep his restaurant, but he also is plotting to feather his nest if he cannot do so, which is only prudent. In this play, Wilson illustrates convincingly that people are the stories that they tell. Their very identities lurk in the stories, both fictional and nonfictional, that they create.