52 pages 1 hour read

August Wilson

Two Trains Running

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


Two Trains Running by August Wilson first opened in 1990 at the Yale Repertory Theatre with Samuel L. Jackson as Wolf and Laurence Fishburne playing Sterling. The play premiered on Broadway in 1992, receiving four Tony nominations in 1992 including Best Play. Two Trains Running is a part of Wilson’s Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, which consists of 10 plays: one for each decade of the 20th century, each depicting the changing experience of living as a Black person in America. Nine of the ten plays are set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the 10th, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982), takes place in Chicago in 1927. Wilson did not write the plays in chronological order, first composing Jitney (set in 1979) in 1982 and finishing the last play, Radio Golf (set in 1997) just before his death in 2005. Two Trains Running, set in 1969, portrays the 1960s. It takes place at the peak of the Black Power movement and considers what the ethos and ideals of the movement meant to the everyday urban Black person who was living in poverty, struggling to survive, and dreaming about success. The play addresses a Black community in the early 1990s, who Wilson felt had dropped the ball in the pro-Black movement after the untimely deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King left no heirs to take up the mantle.

Wilson’s plays contain autobiographical elements, including experiences growing up in the Hill District, a poor, predominantly Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Frustrated with the racism and hostility he endured at school, Wilson dropped out of high school at 15 and educated himself, working a series of low-wage jobs to make ends meet before obtaining his first typewriter when he was 20. Wilson’s plays are known particularly for their characters’ realistic African American Vernacular English, based on an authentic understanding of what Wilson describes in a 1999 interview with The Paris Review, “the poetry in the everyday language of Black America.” In Two Trains Running, as in Wilson’s other plays, the characters are stuck between the language of equality that became increasingly codified into law beginning with emancipation of American slaves (1863) and the daily realities of oppression and racism that keep pushing them down. The plays also include elements of spiritualism and often mysticism, suggesting that there is a fine line between despair and hope and that, sometimes, the key to crossing that line is a matter of faith.

Wilson cut his teeth as a theater artist during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s, the cultural arm of the Black Power movement, which emphasized Black pride and self-reliance, valuing actualization over assimilation. When he began writing plays, Wilson was heavily influenced by artists of the Black Arts Movement, such as playwright Amiri Baraka, painter Romare Bearden, and writer James Baldwin. In Two Trains Running, Wilson revisits this era. In his groundbreaking 1984 speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Wilson states that the Black Power movement is barely remembered within mainstream historical narratives of Black history, and that it has been edged out of popular memory by the more utopian ideals of the Civil Rights movement. Wilson continues, “The Black Power movement was […] the kiln in which I was fired.” His depiction of the decade begins at the tail end, at a point when the Civil Rights movement has faded in the wake of Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination, and the Black Power movement is taking center stage. Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama for Fences (1985) and The Piano Lesson (1987). Two Trains Running was a finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and in 2015, actor Denzel Washington announced he would work with HBO to produce and direct film versions of all 10 Century Cycle plays.

Plot Summary

The play takes place in 1969, set in a diner in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which sits across the street from Lutz’s Meat Market and West’s Funeral Home. A middle-aged man named Memphis owns the restaurant but is in dire straits because business is flagging, and the city is buying up properties to raze the street. Also, his wife left him. Wolf, a diner regular, runs money and takes bets for the numbers racket, an illegal lottery game. He receives endless calls at the diner’s phone, which Memphis orders him to stop, even though Memphis and Wolf both see it as the only chance for some poor Black men to change their circumstances. Risa, an attractive younger woman, waits tables and cooks. She deliberately scarred her legs as a teen to repel the constant male attention. According to Holloway, another regular, people are clamoring to view the body of Prophet Samuel, a revered local religious leader, whose casket is at West’s Funeral Home and supposedly full of gold and cash; mourners regularly put meaningful items along with their deceased loved ones in the casket, and the prophet’s followers have supposedly included this treasure in prophet’s casket. West has amassed wealth and property and has been trying to buy Memphis’s building for years, but Memphis is determined to make the city pay him $25,000. Every day, Hambone, another diner regular, wanders into the restaurant and Risa feeds him. He has an intellectual disability and is singularly focused on Lutz, the white owner of the meat market, who owes him a ham for work he did nearly 10 years ago; Hambone approaches Lutz each day to ask for it. Hambone only says two phrases, both about wanting his ham.

Sterling, freshly released from prison, enters the restaurant and is dismayed to discover that they barely have food. Sterling needs a job and is unwilling to settle for one with low pay. He also wants Risa, who deflects his advances. Holloway sends Sterling to get the spiritual guidance of Aunt Ester, a woman who is over 300 years old, but she is ill and can’t see him. West stops in for his daily coffee and pie, and he offers Memphis $15,000 for the building, scoffing at Memphis’s insistence on $25,000. Sterling keeps flirting with Risa, asserting that his number will come up in the lottery and that he will marry her. He also brings a flier for a rally honoring Malcolm X and invites everyone to go, although no one is interested, and Memphis is disdainful. Memphis is enraged to learn that his deed has a clause that allows the city to name their price for his property, which is only $15,000. Sterling suggests burning it down for the insurance money, but the building isn’t insured. Memphis is terrified of fire, but he’s willing to walk through it now. Sterling gets closer to Risa, and she suggests a number for him to play in the lottery. Sterling befriends Hambone and teaches him to say new phrases, although Hambone forgets them quickly. Sterling still can’t find a job, so he decides to get a gun instead, implying that he might rob someone or something, just as he robbed a bank to land in prison the first time. Sterling finally acquires $2 for the lottery and plays Risa’s number. Memphis’s anger rises, and he takes it out by yelling at both Hambone and Wolf. In a furious monologue, he describes how his land was stolen and set on fire by white people in Jackson, Mississippi. In frustration, Memphis puts his skepticism aside and rushes off to see Aunt Ester.

Holloway reports to Risa that Hambone, who has been missing all day, was found dead in his apartment. He died peacefully. Sterling’s lottery number finally comes up as a winner, but Wolf is nervous about telling him that a lot of people played the same number, so the Albert family (who runs the illegal operation) has “cut the numbers,” which means Sterling will get $600 rather than the $1200 he won. Wolf worries that Sterling, newly armed, might blame him for this number-cutting situation, but when they see each other, Sterling accepts that it isn’t Wolf’s fault and decides to go after the Albert family, which the others are certain will get him killed. However, Sterling returns from the Alberts and tells Risa that he only demanded his initial $2 bet back, which Mr. Albert obliged, shrugging, and sent him on his way. Sterling has finally managed to see Aunt Ester, who helped him to see that he needs to focus on what he has instead of pipe dreams about what he wants. Sterling and Risa finally kiss. In the last scene, Hambone’s viewing is occurring at the funeral home. West tells everyone that Lutz stopped by to pay his respects, which enrages everyone. Sterling exits abruptly. Memphis enters, drunk and happy because the city has inexplicably offered him $35,000. He credits Aunt Ester, who advised him that a dropped ball needs to be picked up, and he tells everyone that he’s going back to Jackson to reclaim his land. Sterling returns, cut and bloody, and gleefully drops a ham he has taken from Lutz’s shop on the table, announcing to West with a grin, “[T]hat’s for Hambone’s casket” (99).