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TWO TRAINS RUNNING: Updating an American Dilemma


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


I bought a copy of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy in 1965 when its second edition came out. The Swedish sociologist’s 1944 study of race relations in the United States was commissioned by The Carnegie Foundation on the correct assumption that a non-American would be better positioned to offer an unbiased opinion. Myrdal was ably helped by African-American Ralph Bunche in research and writing. (Their versatile talents would later be separately recognized by Nobel Prizes in different fields.) The project that took 6 years produced a milestone, as noted in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, and is credited with inspiring the future policies of racial integration and affirmative action.

An American Dilemma is 1,500 pages long. Much of what I know about the African-American condition first came from that exhaustive study.  The script of August Wilson’s 1992 Two Trains Running is just 110 pages. Seeing that magnificent play by the two-time Pulitzer Prize wining Wilson performed in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) this summer refreshed that knowledge and provided me with new insights about that American dilemma. The dilemma in Myrdal’s view was the clash between the commendable American ideals and the lamentable situation of blacks in this country. That view is reflected in Myrdal’s often quoted saying: “The big majority of Americans, who are comparatively well off, have developed an ability to have enclaves of people living in the greatest misery without almost noticing them.”

On this Wednesday evening in Ashland, Oregon, many did come to notice life in one of those black “enclaves” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as depicted in Two Trains Running. Indeed, the Angus Bowmer Theatre that seats 600 was completely full. Remarkably, however, I could not find a single black face in the audience. The Playbill for this production of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival said that OSF’s Artistic Director was proud of “his passionate dedication for diversifying the company and the audience.”   He has been able to do a better job regarding the company. All seven actors in Two Trains Running were African-American members of the OSF Acting Company. The guest director, also an African-American, could not have been a better choice. Lou Bellamy is the founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre* in St. Paul, Minnesota, which over the last 35 years has evolved into a premier venue dedicated to exploration of the African-American experience. In particular, Bellamy takes pride in having “produced more of the Wilson oeuvre than anyone in the world.” Two Trains Running is his special favorite. He has won the off-Broadway OBIE Award for directing it at Signature Theatre Company in New York.

As Bellamy correctly summarizes it, Two Trains Running is America in the turbulent 1960s as seen and experienced by African American “everyday folks.” They were profoundly affected by the momentous events of the time. Ongoing massive projects of urban re-development undertaken in Pittsburgh had recently displaced thousands of people and shut down hundreds of businesses in their neighborhood. This was not unique in the country. Similarly, as elsewhere the killing of Malcolm X and the assassination of Martin Luther King had led to riots in Pittsburgh as well.  Two Trains Running, however, has a longer perspective than the moment. The play spans back more than three centuries to find the roots of the issues it contemplates. That was when the “community,” as a part of the Yoruba people, was uprooted from its home in West Africa. The hurt is long-standing for African-Americans, and their demand for reparation is the foundation of a righteous sense of entitlement, as August Wilson tells us.

Wilson’s characters, all contemporary African- Americans, live in an isolated world, their contact with the “white folks” limited and colored with the singular goal of retrieving little pieces of what was stolen from them and avoiding further such loss. They are stubborn in the face of all evident odds: they persist and resist. Their attitude mirrors that of a colonized people, although in their case they are members of colonies created in the homeland of the colonizers.

The playwright does not give us a hero. This is a community without an organizer. It does not even have “role models” of the type prescribed by the dominant white culture. “Successful” professionals or businessmen are absent in its conversation. Aspirations of this community are remarkable in the limitations of their modesty.  Equally remarkable is how diverse are the members of this African-American community despite all that they have in common. In August Wilson’s story there are significant differentiations in their nexus with the white folks. One is the whites’ agent, another has done some independent work for them, a third violently steals from them, and the fourth fights to get a better deal from them in a forced sale of the business that is his livelihood. The remaining two have no direct dealings with the whites.

It is in dealing and discourse with each other that each character’s personae is fully developed in Two Trains Running. As Bellamy points out this play is unusual as it is an ensemble piece: “American theatre often favors a single black character to add color to a so-called diverse palette…. Rarely do Americans have the opportunity to see the depth, breadth and complexity of black life and culture on stage.”  He credits Wilson’s writing for “the profound understanding that is at the center of the characters’ discourse.” For his vision of “how the play works,”

Bellamy looks to the “rhythm and melodies” of the playwright’s voice. Those rhythms and melodies were there alright, but before hearing Wilson’s voice we were attuned to different types of sound in this production.

As the light came up on the curtain-less stage, which contained a scene from as a diner, what we noticed the most was the loud rhythmic click-clacking of the flat shoes of Risa, the waitress, as she ever-so-slowly moved across the room. This lasted a good few minutes in a silent space, a metronome establishing the tempo of the play. That click-clack would work henceforth as the leitmotif announcing the presence of Risa in a scene. It also attracted one’s attention to the shapely legs of the attractive woman who was the only source of sexual tension in the play. On those legs the unseemly scars of some wounds were clearly distracting. The wounds, we would learn, were self-inflicted. Risa’s intent was to avert unwanted attention, but the scars did not deter the lustful surreptitious gaze of any of the other characters, as Bellamy pointedly choreographed. Risa’s particular gait reflected her resigned indifference, a reaction she showed more explicitly against persistent reminders by her boss to be more attentive to the customers and her other tasks. The dragging in the gait also implied feelings held in check, which were manifested later, including passion for the right person.

Each of the other characters in the play was also introduced to the audience with a distinct movement of the body, especially feet and hands, serving as his identifying leitmotif. The restaurant owner, Memphis, showed the frenzy of a businessman frustrated in his efforts to succeed in a white-dominated world. Sterling, whose wild scheming mind had not been tamed by the years he had just spent in the penitentiary, had a hustler’s restlessness, his fingers always in motion as if throwing dice in a game. Wolf, who was a numbers runner, walked as a city slicker dude, his weight shifting from one foot to another in exaggerated nonchalance. Hambone who was uncontrollably upset that he was cheated out of his pay by a white employer blurted this in his agitated movements. Holloway’s slow, deliberate lumbering spoke of his role as an aging wise man. West’s fastidious transport in his all black outfit reflected his enviable wealthy position as an undertaker. While these leitmotifs differentiated the characters, the very focus on movements worked as a unifying element in the play. It established a framework of cadence for August Wilson’s words.

Wilson deftly interconnected the characters into a community. They all came to Memphis’ diner which remained the sole scene for the entire play. They were all served food and, especially, coffee by Risa, as they also lusted for her. Everyone played the numbers, serviced by Wolf. They were all accepting of a convict who had just returned from prison, Sterling. Everyone was urged by Holloway to go see Aunt Ester (ancestor) and seek her help. None could resist. Significantly, this manifestation of common faith in an African “tradition” was not compromised by any mention of Christianity. Finally, these characters had no kind word for the white folks.  They expected unkind treatment from them.

“United we stand, divided we fall,” Sterling reminded this community of African-Americans. Nobody paid attention. His attempt to mobilize Hambone with that battle cry only showed the futility of such slogans as Hambone was deemed to be a fool. Risa flatly rejected Sterling’s urging to go to a rally in support of Black activism. This community did not place trust in political action. Not engaged in efforts for a common goal, they harped on the shortcomings of each other. In this Memphis was most vocal. Not only did he constantly complain about Risa, he protested that Wolf was exposing his legitimate business to police raids by using his restaurant’s telephone to run numbers. He made it clear that Hambone was not welcome in the restaurant and finally threw him out physically. He maintained that the ham promised Hambone by the white grocer for painting his fence was on the condition that the job was done well; as it was not,  the grocer was justified in offering to pay only a chicken. Memphis was equally critical of Sterling, accusing him of being up to no good.

Memphis’ harsh attitude was challenged by Risa who was the most compassionate toward Hambone. West, on the other hand, was bent on taking advantage of Memphis’ failure to obtain his price for the restaurant from the city. He offered to buy it himself far below the market price, arguing that, otherwise, the city would take it for much less by the use of eminent domain. Wolf and Sterling, on their part, almost came to blows when Wolf did not deliver the money Sterling had won on the number Wolf sold him. A gun fight was averted only after Sterling confronted Wolfe’s white employer who had refused to keep his agent’s promise, and satisfied himself that like Wolf he too was powerless in such relationship. Shortly thereafter, unopposed, Sterling chose violence in order to avenge Hambone who had just died without receiving the promised ham: he broke into the grocer’s store and came back with a ham so that Hambone could be buried with it.

Another form of assault on the common white adversary brings members of this African-American community together. Their own vernacular English is the deformed version of his language. With its deceptively simple vocabulary they engage in an astonishingly complex examination of a whole array of subjects in the penumbra of life and death as though they are cargoes in “two trains running everyday” to the station of their existence. Their freedom of expression in that sanctuary is no better exemplified than their use of the “N” word when group self-loathing is called for -that use strictly denied others as if copyrighted.

These African-Americans’ ultimate bond, however, is their imagined African tradition, projected in the unseen Aunt Ester who is defined mainly as being 349 years old.  She lives in a house on the hill to which the characters in Two Trains Running go on pilgrimage seeking strength to endure. The community survives. The play ends not only with Hambone getting his ham, but with Memphis receiving a higher price than he had hoped for his property, and Sterling succeeds in becoming Risa’s “right” man. Even the long broken juke box of the restaurant is finally repaired. The song Risa plays on it (Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look) is the leitmotif for joy, its beat an invitation to frolic, and Risa teaches Sterling to hold her and begin dancing. This music is not gospel; these people are not looking for deliverance of the type promised by the white man’s religion. August Wilson has killed the former “reverend,” turned “Prophet Samuel,” even before the play begins. He is accused of having fooled many people while amassing a personal fortune.

Two Trains Running is about specific African-Americans at a specific time and place. What it says, however, has general application. You leave the theater protesting in your mind that surely there has been progress since. Yet the black President that comes to you as the prime proof of that change is distinguished by his hybridized specificity. He is half-white and he is the offspring of a contemporary Muslim son of colonialized Kenya. In the resistance that he provokes you see that Myrdal’s American dilemma not only persists but engulfs the discourse about other minorities. On the other hand, in the rise of this product of Harvard and Columbia you find the merits of the Swede’s prescription: “Education means an assimilation of white American culture. It decreases the dissimilarity of the Negroes from other Americans.”