Two Trains Running was the fifth published drama in August Wilson’s decade-by-decade chronicle of the African American experience in the twentieth century. Previous entries in the series included Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (pr. 1984), Fences (pr. 1985), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (pr. 1986), and The Piano Lesson (pr. 1988). Like most of the other plays in the cycle, Two Trains Running made its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theater and underwent revisions while being performed at regional theaters. Thus, the first published edition of Two Trains Running, which appeared in Theater magazine in 1991, differed slightly from a version that was published in 1993.
In a very real sense, all these plays are historical dramas. Wilson, however, examines characters who are marginalized by society, people who indirectly feel the effects of “great events” but do not participate in them. In chronological terms, the cycle traces the great migration and its aftermath from the turn of the century (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) to the time of the Civil Rights movement (Two Trains Running). Wilson seeks to highlight the African American experience and create what he characterizes as “a world in which the black American [is] the spiritual center.”
Critical reception for Wilson’s plays has been generally enthusiastic. Both Fences and The Piano Lesson won the Pulitzer Prize. Following the Broadway premiere of Two Trains Running in April, 1992, Time’s William H. Henry III praised Wilson’s ability to “embed subtle and complex political commentary within the conversational riffs of fully realized characters.” Recognizing the play’s ability to re-create a sense of time and place, Frank Rich of The New York Times praised Wilson’s “penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view to those outside it.” There have, however, been some dissenting voices on the drama scene. In The Hudson Review, Richard Hornby rejected the play’s “slow and erratic” pacing. Moreover, The New Yorker’s Mimi Kramer condemned Wilson’s creation of characters who “rant and speechify themselves out of existence.”