Two Trains Running Summary

August Wilson

Two Trains Running

  • This summary of Two Trains Running includes a complete plot overview – spoilers included!
  • We’re considering expanding this synopsis into a full-length study guide to deepen your comprehension of the book and why it's important.
  • Want to see an expanded study guide sooner? Click the Upvote button below.

Two Trains Running Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Two Trains Running by August Wilson.

Two Trains Running is a play by American playwright August Wilson. Set during the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s Pittsburgh, it tells the story of a restaurant owner who must consider selling his beloved restaurant due to urban planning taking over so much of his neighborhood. Two Trains Running is the seventh installment in Wilson’s ten-part series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, and premiered on Broadway in 1992. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The Pittsburgh Cycle is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It was published later in 1993 by Plume.

The protagonist is Memphis Lee, but the handful of characters in the play each have their own plot arc to fulfill. Two Trains Burning takes place entirely within Memphis’s popular and much-loved soul food restaurant, Lee’s, in Pittsburgh’s Hill district. He built his fortune for himself and values hard work, determination, and honesty. At the play’s outset, he is deliberating whether to sell his restaurant or attempt negotiations.

Memphis refuses to sell his restaurant for anything less than $10,000. He believes this is a fair price. However, he soon discovers that his deed stipulates he must sell for whatever price the city offers. Enraged, he decides he will not sell for anything less than what he wants.

Meanwhile, Memphis is approached by West, who owns the funeral parlor across the street. With his business acumen, he offers Memphis the $10,000 he wants for the restaurant. Memphis, however, cannot understand why West makes him an offer at all, questioning his motives. It turns out that West knows he can sell the business elsewhere for at least $20,000. Memphis wants a share of these profits, but West refuses. Memphis, in turn, refuses to make the sale.

While the pair debates the fate of the restaurant, Sterling, newly released from prison and determined to build a better life, enters. He wants to achieve everything all at once. He wants money, a girlfriend, and a well-paid job. Memphis and West believe he is doomed to fail because he has no clear plan for how he will achieve any of this. He asks West for a job and West refuses. Risa, the waitress, rejects all his advances and takes her time bringing the men their orders as if to rail against male dominance.

Sterling, frustrated by the others, turns to Hambone, a homeless regular diner. Hambone is trapped in the past. He obsesses over a man who once promised him ham in exchange for work and never paid. Sterling tries to get through to him, but Hambone refuses to talk about anything else and the others are used to it.

As the play progresses, Memphis becomes increasingly angry at his lack of progress with City Hall. Sterling has not managed to get a job or a girlfriend yet, and he begins considering more aggressive methods. He now carries a gun and turns to gambling and betting. He meets the numbers runner, Wolf.

Meanwhile, Risa discovers that Hambone is dead. West plans to use a basic regulation casket because Hambone has no money. Risa, however, begs him to give Hambone better than this. Their negotiations reach a stalemate and West refuses to change his mind. As this dilemma progresses, Sterling re-enters. He convinces himself that it is a good idea to confront white men who cheat him out of gambling profits. Wolf and the others try to reason with him, but there is no talking him out of it.

Sterling survives his confrontation but is no better off for it. He does not get the money he lost. West recommends he go to see Aunt Ester, a local spiritual adviser West swears by. Out of options, Sterling decides to go. Her advice inspires Sterling, and he approaches life with a new confidence and more of a plan. Risa begins warming to his advances, too, which is a step forward for him.

West, meanwhile, lays out Hambone’s body at the funeral parlor. Sadly, very few locals turn out to pay their respects to him. This upsets Wolf, who blames the man who betrayed Hambone years ago for Hambone’s depressing final fate. Sterling, unsure what else to say or do, exits quietly and does not mention any new plans or schemes he has in mind.

Finally, the focus returns to Memphis. He is drunk and elated because, all along, the city planned on offering him $25,000 for the restaurant. He visits Aunt Ester for advice and then decides to head back to his home city. He wants to revisit his past and recover land he lost there years ago – the reason he came to Pittsburgh in the first place.

Meanwhile, an alarm goes off across the street. Sterling bursts in with a ham under his arm. He places this ham on Hambone’s casket, and the play ends.

Two Trains Running explores the stark realities of the American Dream from a number of compelling perspectives.