Book Review: Two Trains Running

Two Trains Running (The Century Cycle #7), by August Wilson

While this play is certainly easy enough to understand, the title of the play is not as easy to understand.  There are at least a few interesting parts of this play for viewers, even if they are not acquainted with his body of work as a whole.  For one, the play is one that discusses the theme of urban gentrification that would become a major part of his later play Radio Golf, and for another the play contains the debut of the impossibly old Aunt Esther, who is over three hundred years old and who contains one of the author’s attempts to link both to black Christianity as well as pre-Christian native African beliefs.  1969, with the hostility to the Vietnam War (not referred to here) and the apotheosis of the hippy movement (also not referred to here) makes for an interesting year to be a part of the author’s Century Cycle, and we find that the characters in this play directly comment upon what they view as racial injustice, where blacks find it impossible to get loans to buy property, where the thrift of the black community is directly attacked through lotteries, and where police take photographs of people who show up to demonstrations as a way of keeping tabs on local troublemakers.

As far as the plot goes, this play is like many of the playwright’s works in that it is based on the conversations of ordinary black folk when they are not in the presence of white folk, around whom their conversation would be more restrained.  One could not imagine the doomed Hambone, whose dialogue consists largely of his repeated line, “I want my ham,” being an accepted figure in most polite society, even if some of the people involved in the action think he is more shrewd than he lets on.  Included among the scene, which focuses on bar owner Memphis, is the attractive and self-harming Rita, who cuts herself because of her distress at being seen as a piece of meat by so many men, the shady number runner Wolf, funeral director West, thoughtful Holloway, and former convict Sterling, all of whom have their own private homes and agendas and participate in the rich and vibrant conversation and life in a doomed bar that is going to be bought out for urban renewal, which is one of the many ways where the blacks of Wilson’s Pittsburgh lose their land and places where they belong so that others may profit.

As someone who appreciates reading plays, it is worth pondering at least a bit about what makes Wilson’s plays so excellent.  A large part of the excellence consists in the ways that he writes about blacks from the point of view of blacks in the company of other blacks, in such a way that readers (of whatever background) can listen to the way that they talk and articulate their lives and hopes and frustrations in a way that is open and honest and not colored either by their concerns for judgment on the part of a white audience or by their frustrations with racism that tends to make a great deal of black writing aimed at white audiences rather tedious and full of resentment.  Instead, what we get here is the ability to see people act themselves, whether that is acting the fool or making a bold strike for love or personal dignity or attempts to better oneself, sometimes at the expense of others, in ways that are familiar to the lives of so many people as well as being common themes in the author’s writing as a whole.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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