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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 24, 2011
_Two Trains Running_ is the August Wilson "Century Series" play depicting the African-American experience in the 1960s. In a 1969 Pittsburgh diner, 6 men and a woman share vignettes about their lives and the "American Dream." Memphis, the owner of the diner, is about to have the city seize the restaurant under "immenent domain." Sterling, (who will play a significant role in Radio Golf) has just been released from prison and is enamored with the Black Power movement. West, the community's mortitian and Wolf, a number runner, are the wealthiest men in the Hill District. As these characters relate their lives, Wilson shows how the American Dream has been promised, and for so many, been denied.

Memphis is frustrated and angry: he was run off his farm in Mississippi (with an allusion to The Piano Lesson (The August Wilson Century Cycle)), and now faces being run off of his business in Pittsburgh. Hambone, a homless (and possibly mentally ill) customer has similarly been cheated. Reflecting on the American Dream, Halloway says, "People kill me talking about (African-Americans) is lazy. (African-Americans) is the most hardworking people in the world. Worked three hundered years for free. And didn't take no lunch hour. Now all of a sudden (African-Americans) is lazy. Don't know how to work. All of a sudden when they got to pay (African-Americans), ain't no work for him to do."

Wilson, however, asks us to consider whether the "American Dream" is merely about making money - both Wolf and West have made their money by exploiting and taking advantage of others, seeking to pull themselves up at the expense of their community. Sterling pays a visit to Mama Esther at 1839 Wylie (an allusion to Gem of the Ocean, where Mama Esther will "make you right") and is indeed made right, forgoing money in favor of love. This is reiterated by Holloway who tells the audience, "That's all you got. You got love and you got death. Death will find you ... it's up to you to find love. That's where most people fall down at. Death got room for everybody. Love pick and choose. ... most people won't admit that. ... Love got a price to it. Everybody don't want to pay. They put it on credit. Time it come due they got it on credit somewhere else."

I was profoundly moved by _Two Trains Running_ - a reference to the fact that in life, there are always choices, always two trains running in different directions. Wilson, as with his other plays, poses profound questions about who we are as a nation, about the African-American experience, and that experience in the broader context of being an American. Here, however, he asks us to reconsider what choices we've made and what our values as individuals are. As if his other work hadn't already made him an American classic, _Two Trains Running_ certainly would. As with his other work, if you have an opportunity to see it performed, do not miss it.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 31, 2005
August Wilson is a distinguished playwright who has won numerous awards. He has chronicled the African American experience that begins with the 20s through the 90s. Two of the plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson, both written in the mid 80s, have won the Pulitzer Prize.

Set in 1969, Two Trains Running takes place in a small diner in Pittsburgh. The diner regulars include Risa, a waitress who scarred her legs in an effort to keep men away, which eventually works; Sterling, an ex-prisoner who depends on luck to find work rather than the hard way; Hambone, a mentally challenged middle-age man who was cheated by the white man for work he had done. Still after 9 years, his only and constant words are "I want my ham." Wolf is a numbers runner who uses the diner for his business and Holloway has a strong belief in the supernatural. Also included are the funeral owner, West and diner owner, Memphis.

Urban renewal is a recurring theme in Wilson's work. Tearing down buildings has been an ongoing project and now the city has an offer for the diner owner, Memphis. He holds out for a respectable offer from the city. Memphis is logical with values but he doesn't have much faith for equality, freedom and justice or the black-is-beautiful concept.

The play opens with the restaurant regulars commenting on the townspeople lining up outside West's Funeral Home to see the dead Reverend turned Prophet Samuel. They believe some luck might pass on to them. Funeral home owner, West, is a regular at the diner and he and Prophet are looked upon as two who got rich cheating people.

The play doesn't have much in stage direction as it takes place at a diner counter. Little direction is needed. As for the vernacular, Wilson uses the language of the day, however, it would seem that the African Americans in this poor community did not enunciate as well as the words were written.

If you haven't read Wilson's work, start with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Band and Joe Turner's Come and Gone. There is wonderful insight to memorable plays. These two are the beginning of the decades of African American experience. .....Rizzo
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 1999
An excellent entry in Wilson's seven play cycle of drama depicting African-American history decade by decade. "Two Trains Running" which takes place in a rundown diner in late 1960's Pittsburgh, deals with the bold confrontation against racism. In the characters of Hambone and Memphis we see the war on discrimination waged on an everyday basis.
Read Wilson's masterpieces ("Fences" and "The Piano Lesson") first. You will then feel compelled to read them all.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2013
Two Trains Running by acclaimed playwright August Wilson is a play set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1969. Two Trains Running is a journey through African-American culture; exploring matters such as money, death, self-image and justice. The setting is a restaurant owned by the main character, Memphis Lee, who besides being plagued by his own issues, engages daily with regular patrons: Sterling, Holloway, Wolf, West and Hambone. Risa, the restaurant cook and waitress, also plays significant role throughout the play. While each character manages his/her own personal turmoil, all lives intersect at a crucial moment providing an honest portrayal of life during this important time in African-American history.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 17, 2009
By the time that this review appears I will have already reviewed five of the ten plays in August Wilson's Century cycle. On the first five I believe that I ran out of fulsome praise for his work and particularly for his tightly woven story and dialogue. Rather than keep following that path for the next five plays I would prefer to concentrate on some of the dialogue that makes Brother Wilson's work so compelling. For those who want to peek at my general observations you can look at my review of "Gem Of The Ocean" (the first play chronologically in the cycle).

In all previously reviewed plays I noticed some piece of dialogue that seemed to me to sum up the essence of the play. Sometimes that is done by the lead character as was the case with Troy Maxton in "Fences" when he (correctly) stated that there should have been "no too early" in regard to the possibilities of black achievement and prospects in America. Other times it is by a secondary character in the form of some handed down black folk wisdom to be followed in order to survive in racially-hardened America. In "Two Trains Running" this task falls to Holloway when he cuts through all the basic white assumptions about blacks being lazy. His retort: blacks are the most hard-working people in the world. They worked for free for over three hundred years. And, to add a little dry humor to the situation, he stated that they didn't take a lunch break.

That says more in a couple of sentences about a central aspect of black experience in America than many manifestos, treatises or sociological/psychological studies. That Wilson can weave that home truth into a play of less than one hundred pages and drive the plot line of a story that deals with the contradiction between black aspirations as a result of the promise of the militant civil rights movement down South in the early 1960's and the reality of black segregation when the struggle headed North later to get hit, and get hit hard, with the ugly face of white racism in housing, jobs and education is extraordinary. That wisdom, my friends, is still something to consider in the "post-racial" Obamiad. We shall see.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2013
I was going to Ashland to see this play and wanted to read it first. It's not my "cup of tea". The after-play discussion was fabulous at decoding the nuances of this play.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2012
The story line was good. I liked the ending very much. Funny and true to life. Reminded me of my own adventures.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2001
It is a story that can make you feel as if you are in the story actually seeing all the characters. It is written in slang and in a play but people can later on forget about it and really get into the story. It is a good book. I am reading it because of the mandatory summer school reading. This is one of the few books that I have read/enjoyed. I recommend it to everyone.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon June 16, 2005
August Wilson is the greatest American playwright. Not the greatest living American playwright, but the greatest, period. His best plays stand comparison with the best work of Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. No American playwright has produced such a consistent body of work, and no American playwright has attempted a cycle with the scope and ambition of his series of plays. Wilson's subject is the Great Migration, the story of the African-Americans who emigrated from the southern states to the cities of the industrial North and their slow construction of satisfactory lives in the difficult and changing world of 20th century America. Wilson has written 10 plays on this subject, one for each decade of the 20th century, amounting to a fictional history of African-Americans in the urban North. This is, however, history from below. Wilson's heroes are garbagemen, short-order cooks, day laborers, self-taught musicians, and street vendors. One of his great gifts is his ability to use common speech in a way that is consistently interesting, frequently eloquent, and often powerful. He gives poetic voice to people usually regarded as inarticulate and invests ordinary struggles with real but not exaggerated significance. The African-Americans of Wilson's plays are a doubly uprooted people. Uprooted initially by the grievous trauma of slavery that sundered their connection with their native traditions, the emigrants fleeing the Jim Crow south and its brutal racism are uprooted also from their homes, families, and the traditions developed in the aftermath of slavery.

Wilson's overall story is the reconstruction of African-American identity and family life in the cities of the North over the course of the 20th century. Wilson's plays often feature protagonists whose sense of identity and families have been damaged greatly by the oppressions of racism and the atomizing effects of the industrial economy of the North. Over the course of the cycle, Wilson shows characters re-establishing a sense of connection with their ancestors, even back to Africa, and gradually developing the family ties to sustain them. Wilson repeatedly uses supernatural elements in his work, particularly as a device to advance his theme of the importance of developing a sense of historic connection with ancestors, including those originally abducted from Africa. This could easily be hokey, but his matter of fact use of these elements is very effective. Another recurring theme is the importance of music, particularly the Blues tradition developed by African-American musicians, which he sees as a vital and creative force in African-American life, often carrying truths across generations. Some of the most affecting parts of Wilson's work are his demonstrations of the direct and indirect destructive effects of American racism on family life. Even more powerful are those scenes in which his characters overcome these obstacles to reaffirm family connections.

Not all of Wilson's plays are outstanding, but all are at least very good. Readers will differ on their favorites. In my opinion, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Fences, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom are outstanding. The rest vary from excellent (The Piano Lession) to the very good. Cumulatively, they are a really impressive achievement. Mention must be made of the fact that Wilson has been aided by outstanding collaborators. Wilson's plays usually go through a series of versions before the final version emerges. Wilson has had the benefit of working with unusually talented directors, notably the gifted Lloyd Richards, who was responsible in large measure for recognizing Wilson's talent. Wilson has benefited also from the existence of a whole generation of remarkably talented African-American actors. These people made it possible for Wilson to realize his vision. We have all been the beneficiaries of the work of Wilson and his collaborators.
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Seven Guitars by August Wilson (Paperback - August 1, 1997)

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Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson (Paperback - October 30, 1988)

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Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: A Play (Plume) by August Wilson (Paperback - April 24, 1985)

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