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a thought provoking sketch but perhaps not really a play
on October 1, 2010
AUGUST WILSON'S Two Trains Running is the third play in Wilson's decade-by-decade dramatic expression of the African-American experience. The setting is Pittsburgh, 1969 at a restaurant owned by central character Memphis. Others in his circle include restaurant waitress and cook Risa, passing regulars, and Sterling, a young man who has just been released from jail. The play's arc documents the interaction of these seven as they go about their business during a week.
What is so very interesting is that Wilson's drama is not that "dramatic" but rather "thematic." This is an ordinary week for the characters, yet it captures as a sequence of snapshots that point to deeper truths.
The theme best expressed by lead character Memphis: "If you drop the ball, you got to go back and pick it up."
For Memphis, he "dropped the ball" 40 years earlier when he was run off his rightful property in Mississippi by a group of white men. In a nod to Greek tragedy, Wilson places Memphis's chance at redemption of this injustice as mercurial as the gods: at the end of the play his chance to "pick it up" is simply by luck, rather than any effort on his part. The wheel of Fortuna is his only redemption: not his efforts against the unrighteous gods of his age.
The most arresting character is Hambone. He is instantly familiar to anyone who has ever worked with the homeless or unloved who wander the streets of any modern urban city. Hambone has been struggling to "pick up the ball" for nine years, for he was promised a ham in exchange for painting the fence of a white meat-shop owner. The mercurial and unjust butcher then substituted a chicken instead, but Hambone refused to accept it: holding to the honor of the verbal contract he had made with the butcher. But Hambone's righteous anger and efforts for justice have driven him insane. Every morning since the injustice he has appeared at the owner's doorstep to shout, "I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham." Hambone's mental condition has deteriorated so that his only utterance is "I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham." Such a limited line is a challenge for any actor, yet I would covet the role of Hambone, for this is the archetype of Man himself in contrast to the promises of the gods. Wilson has brilliantly constructed a character that exemplifies "Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad."
The contrast between Memphis and Hambone provides a contra-narrative on irony to the theme. It states that a long, arduous struggle for one's rights will only result in mental deterioration, and perhaps what is best to do is to wait around until a fortuitous opportunity for justice presents itself. Appeal to the Fates by being patient? But Wilson is far too clever, for by such a simple surface expression he is subversively suggesting the opposite: you need effort and luck, but the experience itself is insane, and you can end up insane.
The character of Sterling is a civil rights activist, in contrast to the business owner Memphis. His attitude blends Malcolm X over MLK. But his character is under-developed (perhaps because Wilson correctly surmised that such a character's articulation is completely understood and it is unnecessary to say more, like Oscar Wilde's upper-class English toffs). Sterling shouts "Black is beautiful," and it is all we need to know.
Risa is the only female character, and she is in contrast to capitalist Memphis, mad Hambone, and activist Sterling, and a neutral character, but not merely chorus, for it is she that extends a tenderness to Hambone which he finally accepts. But the character is not a stock "magic negro" or "nurturing mother-goddess" but is undefined, and perhaps only on the verge of beginning to define herself. Risa's first attempts at self definition are violence against herself in self-mutilation. Her motivation is to deter unwanted male attention: her legs are badly scarred from self-inflicted knife wounds. A character remarks almost as trivia, "Who wants a woman who sliced up her legs? What'll she do to me?" Her efforts are sadly rewarded, because men avoid her. Yet in an attempt at tenderness she allows Sterling to win her affection with little effort. Perhaps this is Wilson's statement that at this time black females only had choices of lowered expectations and acceptance: defeat or self destruction were their only choices.
Holloway is the oldest regular of the restaurant, and a voice into the past and its wisdom. Holloway acts as a spiritual advisor; he recommends his friends take their problems to Aunt Esther, a 322-year-old spiritual healer, whom sadly is the "magic negro" stereotype. Holloway's monologues are the richest and diverse and perhaps is Wilson's own grandfather's voice bursting through.
This is not a classic, yet somehow this play's characters are extremely well chosen and speak to deeper truths than the simple story arc expresses. This play succeeds in that it makes you think.