Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1083
Two Trains Running is a two-act drama consisting of eight scenes that unfold over a period of one week in Memphis Lee’s restaurant in Pittsburgh. As in many of August Wilson’s plays, there is a minimum of action: Many of the drama’s key events occur offstage and are discussed by the characters. The emphasis is on dialogue—the rich musical language of the street and the harsh urban reality it explores.
As the drama opens, urban renewal has gradually (and ironically) brought a once-vibrant neighborhood under the wrecker’s ball, and Memphis’s once-thriving business has been reduced to the few patrons who constitute the play’s cast. Moreover, the dying neighborhood and restaurant are matched by Memphis’s moribund marriage. His wife has left him, tersely stating that “she was tired.”
In scene 1, the talk of the neighborhood is concerned not so much with the turbulent events that characterized the 1960’s but with economic issues. Wolf, Holloway, and Memphis all play the numbers game in the hope of staving off the enervating effects of poverty. Even Memphis, whose business once provided a steady income, admits: “It wasn’t till I hit the numbers eight or nine years ago that I got to the point where I could change my clothes every day.” The sense of unfairness is reflected in the discussion of Prophet Samuel, a deceased preacher who enriched himself at the expense of the poor. Prophet (perhaps a pun on “profit”) maintained a harem of sorts and lived a life of luxury in this otherwise impoverished neighborhood. As people crowd into West’s funeral home to view him, Holloway states: “He got hundred-dollar bills . . . got diamonds on all his fingers.” The location of Prophet Samuel’s remains is appropriate, for West, the funeral director, has repeatedly conned his nearly penniless neighbors into purchasing expensive funerals.
As Memphis anxiously waits for word from his lawyer regarding the city’s payment for his soon-to-be-demolished restaurant, two more poverty-stricken figures enter the scene: Hambone and Sterling. Hambone, a middle-aged retarded man, talks continually about a debt owed to him by Lutz, the white owner of a meat market who, years earlier, cheated Hambone out of a ham. While he voices his demand for his long-delayed payment, Sterling receives some advice from Holloway. He tells the ex-convict that he can change his luck by visiting Aunt Ester, a true prophet: “Aunt Ester give you more than money. She make you right with yourself.”
In scene 2, Memphis, Wolf, and Holloway watch Hambone enact his daily ritual of demanding from Lutz the payment of a ham. Nearly ten years after he painted the meat-market owner’s fence, Hambone still awaits compensation; again and again, he repeats the lines, “He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham.” Though Memphis dismisses this obsession, Holloway grasps the true significance of Hambone’s persistence. Holloway believes that Hambone “might have more sense than any of us.” Instead of accepting the chicken that Lutz offers him, Hambone has taken the difficult but nobler course of demanding what is rightfully his. Memphis, however, reveals his own painful past. He intends to reclaim the Jackson, Mississippi, farm that whites stole from him in 1931. Memphis reveals his determination to get his fair share when he turns down West’s offer of fifteen thousand dollars for his restaurant.
In scene 3, the growing relationship between Sterling and Risa (he invites her to a rally, and she gives him what she predicts will be a winning number) is contrasted with their bleak environment. As Wolf observes, African Americans are “always under attack.” The pervasiveness of this harsh reality is underscored by both Hambone and Memphis. Sterling is unable to change the former’s chant to...
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