Two Trains Running

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Two Trains Running
Two Trains Running.jpg
Broadway production poster
Written by August Wilson
Date premiered 1990
Place premiered Yale Repertory Theatre
New Haven, Connecticut
Original language English
Series The Pittsburgh Cycle
Subject The uncertain future promised by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s
Genre Drama
Setting the Hill District of Pittsburgh, 1969

Two Trains Running is a play by American playwright August Wilson, the seventh in his ten-part series The Pittsburgh Cycle. It was first performed by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, while its Broadway première was on 13 April 1992 at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City.

Plot synopsis[edit]

Characters
  • Holloway
  • Wolf
  • Sterling
  • Risa
  • West
  • Hambone
  • Memphis

The play takes place in the Hill District, an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1969. It explores the social and psychological manifestations of changing attitudes toward race from the perspective of urban blacks.

Historical context[edit]

African-American migration[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Great Migration (African American).

Seeking to escape from poverty, racism, and segregatory "Jim Crow" laws, many black Americans migrated to northern industrial cities during the early and mid-20th century. Most of these migrants had worked in agriculture in the former Confederate slave states, and few were well acquainted with urban life. Broadly speaking, blacks who moved north could expect higher wages, better educational opportunities, and greater potential for social advancement than they had received in the South. This story is written by August Wilson about love, hate, and struggles African Americans faced in the late 1960s and early '70s.

While racism in the North was arguably less violent and overt than in the South, it was nonetheless present. Though lynching was rarer and de jure segregation did not exist in the North, negative attitudes towards blacks prevailed among many white citizens. As industrial, inner city neighborhoods became increasingly black, many whites left for the suburbs, taking their capital assets with them.

The result, was the rapid emergence of overwhelmingly black neighborhoods, which, generally speaking, suffered tragically high poverty and crime rates. Yet these neighborhoods also simmered with hopes of economic, social, and political advancement. As such, they served as fertile soil for the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Two Trains Running is set in such a neighborhood.

The Hill District in the 1960s[edit]

The restaurant in the play is at 1621 Wylie Avenue, in Pittsburgh's Hill District. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Hill District was one of the most prosperous, culturally active black neighborhoods in the United States. In 1960s, however, the neighborhood had suffered a sharp economic decline.

In the play, Memphis recounts how his restaurant, which now sees few patrons, used to be packed with customers. He discusses how many once-bustling small businesses have since closed down.

Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority seized land in the area throughout the 1960s, as part of the movement known generally as urban renewal. Countless buildings were destroyed to make way for the Civic Arena and various public housing projects. This effort displaced thousands of people, and is remembered as one of the most catastrophic urban development efforts in US history.

In the play, Memphis's building is to be seized by the city (presumably by the URA), and he is nervous about the price he will receive for it. Speaking of the eminent domain clause in his deed, he says "They don't know I got a clause of my own... They can carry me out feet first... but my clause say... they got to meet my price!" Like Hambone's "He gonna give me my ham", this indignant insistence is not just material. It represents an unyielding demand for dignity and respect from those who have historically been denied it.

Urban unrest and the Black Power movement[edit]

Throughout Act Two of the play, Sterling (a young man from the neighborhood recently released from the state penitentiary) eagerly awaits a rally, for which he tries to generate interest at the restaurant. Though he makes it clear that the rally involves racial justice, he does not specify its exact motivations or political aims. Memphis reacts with scorn when Sterling posts a flyer for the event, but he never makes it clear exactly why he is so uncomfortable with it.

To understand the significance of the rally, one must consider the history of riots in Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, a wave of riots struck urban, black areas of the United States. Though not as devastating as the riots in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, the riots in Pittsburgh damaged black areas economically and escalated tensions with the city police.

Memphis's scorn also reflects a broader generational conflict on the topic of resistance that came to a head in the 1960s. Many older, southern-born blacks like Memphis had learned to survive by not stirring up trouble with the white establishment. Many in the younger generation, such as Sterling, viewed this attitude as implicit submission—a remnant of slave mentality worthy of contempt.

This shift in attitude is evident in the evolution of the Civil Rights movement. In 1960, the movement relied primarily on legal action and political lobbying by organizations such as the NAACP. Over the next few years, however, nonviolent mass action emerged as the primary tactic, manifesting in events such as the 1963 March on Washington. By the late 1960s, however, many younger members of the movement, questioned the idea of nonviolence. For example, in 1966, Stokely Carmichael became leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Carmichael believed that true liberation for black people required direct seizure of power rather than appeal to white power structures. Pursuant to this belief, he dismissed all white members of SNCC. The organization effectively became part of the Black Power movement, and over the next few years dissolved, as many of its leaders (including Carmichael) joined the more radical Black Panther Party.

Black women in the 1960s[edit]

Though she has relatively few lines, Risa is one of the most powerful characters in Two Trains Running. Despite his long struggles with oppression, Memphis seems to have little idea of his oppressive behavior toward Risa. He never thanks her or shows appreciation for her work, and he constantly meddles in her affairs as if she could not manage without him.

While Holloway is polite to Risa, he does nothing to defend her from Memphis' persistent criticism. For all he has to say on the topic of racial injustice, he seems oblivious or apathetic to the injustice that occurs right before his eyes at the restaurant.

When Sterling invites Risa to the rally, she shows surprisingly little interest. Though she does not say so explicitly, it appears she feels alienated from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

This interaction elegantly portrays the exclusion of women from the movement. As one author writes:

The movement, though ostensibly for the liberation of the black race,
was in word and deed for the liberation of the black male. Race was
extremely sexualized in the rhetoric of the movement. Freedom was
equated with manhood and the freedom of blacks with the redemption of
black masculinity.

(from [1])

Awards and nominations[edit]

Awards
  • 2007 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Revival
Nominations
  • 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
  • 1992 Tony Award for Best Play
  • 2007 Audelco Award for Dramatic Production of the Year

References[edit]

  • Wilson, August (1992). Two Trains Running (First edition ed.). New York: Plume. ISBN 0-452-26929-6. 

External links[edit]