Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999
August Wilson was one of the most celebrated American playwrights since World War II, and he is best remembered for his ten-play history cycle. Each of Wilson’s ten plays is set in a different decade of the twentieth century. Together, they form a portrait of the African American experience of the century, in an attempt to demonstrate the ways in which African Americans have suffered, endured, or thrived. Two Trains Running won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, and it was nominated both for a Tony Award and for the Pulitzer Prize in drama.
In many ways, Two Trains Running is the play that offers the clearest insight into Wilson’s vision of history. In tackling one of the most tumultuous decades of the twentieth century, the 1960’s, Wilson resists most of that decade’s iconic reference points. Many reviewers were surprised that the play did not include more recognizable allusions to the period, but for Wilson, the 1960’s was not about Vietnam, the Kennedy assassinations, the March on Washington, Stonewall, or Woodstock. Instead, in Wilson’s vision, the 1960’s are embodied by a group of men hanging out in a diner. Wilson’s history is domestic, and his characters’ attitudes, struggles, and perceptions communicate the essence of the decade in highly subjective and symbolic ways.
Wilson sees the decade, by its close, as a time of both loss and injustice. Loss comes in the opening stage directions, where Wilson notes that the aptly named West’s Funeral Home sits across the street from the restaurant. He reinforces this theme with the news of the death of Prophet Samuel, whose role as a spiritual leader, however dubious, carries echoes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The characters also speculate in great detail about the practices of burying the dead, and they debate the merits of West’s management, professional demeanor, and ethics as a funeral director.
Wilson later intensifies the play’s sense of loss with references to the Malcolm X birthday rally and the death of Hambone. Moreover, the neighborhood itself is nearing its end. Sterling even speculates that these events are harbingers of the end of the world. All of these details remind audience members that this play is set at the end of the decade, not in the middle. By 1969, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and King were all dead, and the play suggests that the end of the 1960’s was a time for confronting loss rather than celebrating victory. The lengthy monologues only add to the feeling that the play is nearly a wake. Wilson suggests, however, that it is not enough to mourn. Instead, he uses the plight of the restaurant and the cutting of Sterling’s winnings as reminders that even though the Civil Rights movement is essentially over, the struggles continue. Memphis crystallizes the characters’ sense of injustice when he mocks the notion of the blindfolded statue of Justice, suggesting that she of all people should possess clear sight.
The play’s title perhaps evokes the fact that, when its characters have faced difficult choices, they have relied on two local advisers: Prophet Samuel and Aunt Ester. Prophet Samuel is largely represented as a fraud, although Risa and the huge crowd across the street clearly believe otherwise. Aunt Ester is a mythical figure and a giver of sage advice. Though she does not appear physically in the play, she is mentioned in other plays from Wilson’s history cycle, and she appears as a major character in Gem of the Ocean (pr. 2003, pb. 2006), which is set in the first decade of the twentieth century.
For much of Two Trains Running , Holloway insists that she is 322 years old. However, Sterling informs everyone that she is actually 349 years old, which is particularly significant when one considers that, if true, she would...
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