The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

African American Literary Culture before 1990
Mainstream drama in the United States changed significantly in the later...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Unity of Place
Although Two Trains Running focuses on the changing circumstances of an entire community and...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1969: The African American community has secured major legal victories as part of the civil rights movement, but...

(The entire section is 138 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Two Trains Running was produced contemporaneously with a resurgence of interest in black power, marked perhaps most notably by Spike...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Wilson’s Fences (1985) focuses on an ex-convict and baseball player who is locked in a desperate struggle with his son. Its...

(The entire section is 212 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Henry, William A., III, “Luncheonette Tone Poem,” in Time, Vol. 139, No. 17, April 27, 1992, p....

(The entire section is 290 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Collection of scholarly essays on Wilson’s plays, including studies of Two Trains Running and other individual works, as well as broader discussions of the playwright’s overall project.

Ching, Mei-ling. “Wrestling Against History.” Theater 19, no. 3 (Summer/Fall, 1988): 70-71. Discusses how the characters Herald Loomis (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), Troy (Fences), and Boy Willie (The Piano Lesson) must struggle with history and the reality of being African American in a white...

(The entire section is 403 words.)