Two Trains Running
Two Trains Running
One of the leading playwrights of the late twentieth century, August Wilson brought African American culture and history to the stage with eloquence. His many awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes, together with his formidable critical reputation and the popularity of his plays, marked his status as perhaps the greatest black dramatist of his generation. Wilson is widely known for his ear for idiomatic African American dialogue, his gift for portraying political dilemmas and social turbulence in an immediate and compelling manner, and his deep knowledge of daily life among impoverished blacks living in U.S. cities.
Two Trains Running, one of Wilson's most overtly and pointedly political works, takes place during the heyday of the black power movement, at a moment of great upheaval in U.S. race relations. It is one of a series of plays dealing with African American culture and history in the twentieth century, and perhaps its central theme is the manner in which the poor urban black community reacted to legal victories of the civil rights movement. Wilson stresses that a sense of hopelessness went hand-in-hand with optimism and progress in places such as 1969 urban Pittsburgh, where equal rights applied to African Americans only in theory and many blacks struggled daily with meager wages and dismal prospects. As of 2007, the play was available in a 1993 paperback edition published by Plume Drama. It originally opened in 1990 and came to Broadway in 1992 with a cast that included Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on April 27, 1945, August Wilson was the fourth of six children in a poor mixed-race family. He was named after his father Frederick August Kittel, a white German, but Kittel never lived with the family, and Wilson's mother Daisy Wilson, a cleaning woman, later married David Bedford, an ex-convict who had spent twenty-three years in prison after killing a man during a robbery. The character Troy Maxson of Fences is based on Bedford, and this play serves as an indication of the tense relationship between Wilson and his stepfather.
Wilson attended Catholic school but encountered severe racial abuse and changed schools twice. He quit public school after a history teacher accused him of plagiarizing a term paper. He began to read literature by various writers, including Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Dylan Thomas. Wilson briefly joined the U.S. Army and then, at age eighteen, returned to his Pittsburgh neighborhood where he took on a variety of jobs and began writing poetry.
When his biological father died in 1965, Wilson officially took his mother's maiden name and moved into his own apartment. He became interested in the blues singer Bessie Smith, the poet Amiri Baraka, and African American oral culture in general, and he became involved in the black power movement. In 1968, Wilson helped to open the Black Horizon Theater Company, which intended to promote black self-awareness. The next year he married a Muslim woman named Brenda Burton, and they had a daughter in 1970, but the marriage ended in 1972. In 1973, Wilson wrote a play about a troubled marriage entitled Recycle, and from then on Wilson's choice of subject matter as a dramatist was often influenced by his personal life, even though he consistently claimed in interviews that he did not write autobiographical plays.
In 1978, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to work as an educational scriptwriter for the Science Museum of Minnesota. His breakthrough as a playwright came in 1982, with the production of Jitney, a play about a Pittsburgh cab company, and the acceptance of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom for workshops at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. The latter was produced on Broadway in 1984 to critical acclaim, and Wilson won a variety of prestigious fellowships and awards based on it. His next play, Fences, was produced on Broadway in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize. He also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for The Piano Lesson. Wilson's plays continued to be produced through the 1990s, usually to considerable success, and he came to the conviction that each of his plays should portray a different period of twentieth-century African American history. Each play in his cycle takes on a different decade, including Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986), which details an ex-convict's journey to find his wife in the 1910s, and Two Trains Running (1990), which is set in the 1960s and which won the American Theatre Critics' Award in 1992.
Wilson, who remarried twice and was survived by his third wife, Constanza Romero, continued to write plays until he died of liver cancer on October 2, 2005, in Seattle, Washington.
Act 1, Scene 1
In a restaurant across the street from West's Funeral Home and Lutz's Meat Market, West talks on the phone about his job running numbers (taking bets for an illegal lottery). Memphis tells him to get off the phone, and Risa criticizes the numbers game. Memphis explains why his wife left him, and Holloway enters telling them about the people lining up at the funeral home to see Prophet Samuel. He says people were charging to see him until West stopped them, and the men declare that West must be very wealthy, in part (they say) because he robs corpses of their valuables before burying them. Memphis says that West has always wanted his land and that the city wants to tear down his restaurant. He says he will refuse to take less than twenty-five thousand dollars, and the men continue to talk about how West takes too much money from people.
Hambone enters, repeating "He gonna give me my ham" as usual, and Risa expresses sympathy for him. Sterling enters and chides them for having very little available to eat. He recognizes Risa as the sister of his old friend, flirts with her, and reveals that he has been in prison. The men give him some recommendations about finding a job, but Sterling has already tried most of them and found that it is very difficult to find work. They talk about how the people hope to become lucky by rubbing Prophet Samuel's head, and Holloway says it is better to go to see Aunt Ester. They explain to Sterling that Lutz promised Hambone a ham if he painted the fence well but gave him a chicken instead, and every morning for almost ten years Hambone has demanded the ham. Holloway discusses how Aunt Ester and Prophet Samuel earned the affections and trust of the community, and Sterling leaves in search of Aunt Ester.
Act 1, Scene 2
The men watch as Hambone confronts Lutz once again, and Holloway argues that Hambone might have more sense than any of them, since he refuses to accept "whatever the white man throw at him." Memphis tells about how white residents drove him out of Jackson, Mississippi, and expresses confusion about the fact that Risa cut her legs in order to distract attention from her beauty. Then Memphis says he found out that Sterling had robbed a bank, and Holloway argues that the problem is not that Sterling or black people in general are lazy, but that the money that black people make inevitably goes to white men. He says that white people have always "stacked" or exploited black people since the times of slavery.
West enters and defends his lucrative undertaking business. He offers to buy the restaurant for fifteen thousand dollars in cash and tells Memphis that the city will not give him more than ten thousand for it. Sterling enters saying that Aunt Ester was not available and inviting everyone to a rally celebrating the birthday of Malcolm X. They discuss Malcolm X and the black power movement, and Memphis expresses frustration with such political movements. Hambone enters, and Memphis angrily kicks him out of the restaurant.
Act 1, Scene 3
Unable to find a job, Sterling talks with Risa about his past, invites her to a rally for Malcolm X, and claims that they will get married if the number she suggests wins the lottery. He tells Holloway that Hambone painted the fence very well and deserves his ham, and West enters with gifts for Risa and Memphis. Sterling asks to borrow money so he can bet on a number, and he and Wolf agree that the world is crazy and hopeless. Holloway tells him that he is headed for jail, and Sterling says that he will end up there anyway.
Wolf starts a collection to get Bubba Boy out of jail so he can attend his wife's funeral, and Sterling teaches Hambone the phrase "Black is beautiful." Memphis enters complaining that the city offered him fifteen thousand dollars for the restaurant, so he fired his black lawyer and hired a white one. He says he decided not to settle for anymore "draws" after he missed his mother's death because he could not borrow the money to travel down to Jackson, and he resolves to make the city meet his price.
Act 2, Scene 1
Sterling steals Risa flowers from Prophet Samuel's visitation room and seems to have stolen a can of gasoline as well. He tries to teach Hambone other black power slogans and starts hollering with him, then sells the gas to Memphis. Memphis starts to get irritated with his customers, and Wolf sells Sterling a gun on credit. Memphis hangs up on a caller trying to reach Wolf and says that Wolf cannot receive calls at the restaurant anymore.
West enters complaining that someone has broken the window to his funeral home, and someone tried to break in the basement. He offers Memphis twenty thousand dollars for the restaurant, with the catch that he withhold five thousand until after he sells it to the city. Memphis refuses and explains how the white community in Jackson confiscated his land, killed his mule, and set fire to his crop, all because he had found a way to irrigate his field. Sterling asks West for a job as a driver, but West refuses and tells about the time that he asked Aunt Ester whether his wife was in heaven. Holloway says that he went to see Aunt Ester because he wanted to kill his grandfather, who loved white men and helped them control other slaves. Sterling asks Memphis if he wants to form a partnership selling chicken to steel mill workers, but Memphis refuses.
Act 2, Scene 2
Holloway says that Hambone did not go to see Lutz that morning and describes Prophet Samuel's funeral. Wolf tells them that he has two women in Atlanta, but one of them thinks he is a rich man so he cannot go there unless he has money. Then Wolf says that Sterling won the numbers game yesterday, but the family who runs it cut the amount of the winnings. Holloway refuses to explain this to Sterling, and Memphis tears down a black power poster that Sterling has put on the wall. Sterling enters and describes Prophet Samuel's funeral, and Memphis says that Prophet Samuel used to cheat people out of their money. Sterling says he believes the world is coming to an end. Memphis pays Risa and asks Holloway where Aunt Ester lives.
Act 2, Scene 3
Holloway says that Hambone is dead, and Risa sweeps at Wolf with her broom. West enters describing how he retrieved Hambone's body, and Risa tells him that he should bury Hambone in a decent coffin. West says that this would be too expensive for him. Sterling enters and invites West to come gambling with him in Las Vegas, but West says he is no longer interested in this kind of life. West tells Sterling that his expectations for life are too high, but Sterling refuses to listen. Wolf enters and explains to Wolf that they cut the numbers in half, and Sterling says he is going to demand his money from the Alberts despite Wolf's and Risa's warnings.
Act 2, Scene 4
Sterling tells Risa how he confronted Old Man Albert but did not actually ask for his full winnings. He then went to see Aunt Ester and threw twenty dollars into the river on her advice. Sterling asks Risa why she cut up her legs and says that it is only natural that he wants to be with her. She tells him he would be an unreliable husband who will end up in jail, and he says they can kiss without marrying. Risa puts on the jukebox and they dance, then kiss.
Act 2, Scene 5
Holloway philosophizes that there is nothing in the world but love and death, and the men discuss the rally the previous night. A drug store was burned down, but Holloway thinks it was just a scam so that the owner could collect the insurance. Wolf tries to explain why he does not have a girlfriend, and West agrees that he made Hambone's visitation look good. Wolf says that it is all right that Sterling is together with Risa, and Memphis enters slightly drunk. Memphis explains that he went to see Aunt Ester, threw twenty dollars into the river, and went to the courthouse where they awarded him thirty-five thousand dollars for his restaurant. His wife moved back in, but he moved out and says he plans to go down to Jackson and claim back his land. He gives Risa fifty dollars to buy flowers for Hambone, and Sterling enters with blood on his face and a ham he has stolen from Lutz, for Hambone's casket.
Bubba Boy is deeply in love with his wife. When she dies of a drug overdose, he steals a dress for her and is arrested.
Aunt Ester is an old black woman who tells fortunes and helps people find relief. Holloway claims that she is three hundred and twenty-two years old, which means that she is about as old as African slavery in North America, and this correspondence suggests that she may symbolize the black experience in the United States. She gives advice about how to cope with life rather than change circumstances, and she frequently advises black people to throw money into the river.
Hambone is a mentally disturbed, or possibly mentally handicapped, man who repeats the same two phrases continually. He is in his late forties, and his character description terms him, "self-contained and in a world of his own." A major source for his deterioration seems to be Lutz, the white owner of the meat market across the street from the restaurant, who promised to reward Hambone with a ham if he painted his fence well, but then agreed only to give him a chicken.
Hambone is of great symbolic importance to the play, and the main characters all come to feel an affinity with him and sadness at his death. West reveals that he had scars all over his body, and this image recalls flogging marks of blacks from the South, helping to depict Hambone as a symbol of the oppressed black man. Hambone's dogged insistence that the white man must give him his due seems pathetic and even ridiculous at first, but later it seems that he is not necessarily so different from the other characters. In some ways, Hambone is a foil, or a character whose purpose is to reveal something about another character, for Memphis, since they both make demands of white people with similar persistence, but seem to go about it in different ways.
Holloway, a wise and philosophical man who has strong religious beliefs, voices "his outrage at injustice with little effect." His character description indicates that he has come to "accept his inability to effect change and continue to pursue life with zest and vigor," but he has not lost his fury with the oppression that African Americans continue to face at the end of the 1960s. Somewhat cynical about people's motives to make money and take advantage of others, Holloway's opinions are nevertheless justified by his experience.
Holloway was deeply affected by his grandfather's loyal and subservient relationship to white people and was ready to kill him until he came under the influence of the spiritual advisor Aunt Ester. After that, he was able to endure his troubles by believing that he can do little or nothing to make matters better for black people. Holloway serves as a valuable and articulate source of context and history for the audience; he is always probing for reasons for current problems and scolding blacks for failing to see the broader causes behind their desperation.
Lutz is the white owner of the meat market across the street from the restaurant. The black characters despise him, particularly after Hambone's death, for refusing ever to give Hambone the ham that he promises him. They differ, however, in their opinion as to whether he will ever succumb to Hambone's persistence. Lutz himself never appears in the play, and there is no indication that he regrets refusing to satisfy Hambone for nine and a half years.
Mellon is a rich white banker and speculator who may be exploitative of or racist toward blacks. Holloway indicates that Mellon had a shady alliance with Prophet Samuel.
The central character of the play is the restaurateur Memphis, whose life comes to the brink of tragedy when his marriage breaks up, and the city moves forward with its plans to demolish his restaurant. His character description states that he is a "self-made man whose values of hard work, diligence, persistence, and honesty have been consistently challenged by the circumstances of his life," and identifies "impeccable logic " as his best quality. Memphis is by no means a simple character, however, and his sense of rationality or logic is not always straightforward. For example, he strongly believes that individuals are born free and able to determine their own destiny, but he is limited in his ability to understand the ways in which black people are not exactly free in the United States due to continued racial oppression. He is also inept at maintaining and cultivating personal relationships, and he is unable to see why his wife is not satisfied simply because he supports her financially.
Memphis has a strong sense of justice and self-worth, and he is willing to fight violently and resourcefully for his own well-being. He continually makes demands of white people (such as twenty-five thousand dollars for his restaurant and the ownership of his farm in Jackson) based on his sense of entitlement. He fails, however, to address the broader, institutional forces working against him and other black people.
Old Man Albert
Old Man Albert is the head of the white family which runs the numbers game and is probably tied to organized crime.
Prophet Samuel is a very popular preacher whose funeral attracts large numbers of supporters. Holloway and Memphis accuse him of cheating people and having corrupt ties to powerful businessmen, but Risa and Sterling support him. His political and religious position is never perfectly clear, but Risa explains that he was interested in justice for black people and talked about the end of the world approaching.
Risa is a resilient woman with deeply held convictions, the only female character in the male-dominated world of the play. Her character description indicates only that she cut herself with a razor in order to focus attention away from her good looks and towards her personality. Her personality remains something of a mystery, however, since she refuses to go into detail about her personal life, possibly because she remains disgusted by the fact that men think of her only as a sex object.
Risa is nevertheless outspoken about her convictions, and she makes no secret of her dedication to Prophet Samuel and her admiration for Hambone. She criticizes the men for wasting their money gambling and persists in asking West to provide a decent coffin for Hambone. She is attracted to Sterling in part because of their shared interest in the black power movement, but she refuses to see him as a potential marriage partner because she does not think he is reliable.
A personable young man who appears to be somewhat "unbalanced," Sterling has recently been released from jail. He does not show any remorse for his crime, which was robbing a bank because he was tired of having no money, and he seems poised to go back to prison. This is not so much because Sterling is lazy, as Memphis claims, even though he seems unwilling to do hard manual labor. Instead, the play suggests that work is very difficult to find for poor black people, and Sterling continually looks in vain for a job.
Sterling's character description reads that he is wearing a prison-issue suit and an old-fashioned straw hat and that he uses "unorthodox logic " and has a "straightforward manner." Sterling is certainly straightforward about what he wants, which is money and a girlfriend, and he flirts persistently with Risa until she begins to fall for him. He is susceptible to influence and becomes interested in the black power movement, Malcolm X, Prophet Samuel, and Aunt Ester, though it is unclear exactly where his political or spiritual convictions lie. Ultimately, Sterling expresses his sense of right and wrong with a belated and probably doomed gesture of affection for Hambone, when he steals a ham from Lutz. His attitude is generally that life is hopeless, but he also insists on enjoying each moment to the fullest, which makes him a likeable if somewhat confounding personality.
An undertaker who lives above his funeral home, West arouses the jealousy of his neighbors because he is comparatively wealthy. He is a widower in his early sixties and seems to continue to be saddened by the death of his wife, whom he loved deeply. He used to work in the gambling business, but he realized that he could make a lot of money by dealing instead with those who died from this kind of life, and he became an undertaker.
West's character description indicates that he "has allowed his love of money to overshadow the other possibilities of life," and a symbol of this is the fact that he always asks for sugar with his coffee but never actually uses it. He is not entirely unsympathetic, however, since he is generally kind to everyone and even gives Risa and Memphis gifts (although he may intend these to encourage Memphis to sell the restaurant). He dresses immaculately in black and has a sense of pride and propriety; even though someone breaks the window of his funeral home, for example, he refuses to put a board in its place because that would not be classy enough for him.
Wolf is a numbers runner who longs for female companionship but is unable to maintain or even begin a relationship. He earns a living recording bets and distributing winnings for an illegal lottery run by a white family organization probably tied to organized crime. He and Memphis have a strained relationship because Wolf continually receives phone calls related to his work at the restaurant, and Memphis is worried that he will get into trouble for allowing this. Wolf's confrontation with Sterling reveals that he has some mild discomfort with the nature of his work, not because it is illegal or even because it contributes to the impoverishment of the people who participate in it, but because those who run it do not always fairly distribute the winnings.
Wolf has feelings for Risa, which is why he is concerned about her relationship with Sterling and why he continually pays regard to her. He is completely ineffective in courting her, however, and deludes himself and others with stories of multiple lovers (possibly prostitutes) in Atlanta. Ultimately, he does not object to Risa's relationship with Sterling or even confront them about it, perhaps because he is insecure and unable to express his feelings.
White Exploitation and Black Power
Two Trains Running is an explicitly political play that makes extended reference to the black power movement and its impact on poor urban communities like the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The issue of continued white oppression of African Americans and the response of the black community during the 1960s is at the foreground of the characters' experience. The community surrounding the restaurant is undergoing a major redevelopment, probably one which has been precipitated by the social initiatives that came in the wake of the civil rights movement. However, the legal rights and privileges that the African American community won during the 1950s and 1960s do not seem necessarily to extend to impoverished city-dwellers. An underlying sense of tragedy and hopelessness pervades even short-term victories such as the city awarding Memphis thirty-five thousand dollars, since Memphis remains estranged from his wife and has the foreboding and dangerous plan of returning to Mississippi to claim back his land. Sterling seems doomed to return to prison, his relationship with Risa seems unlikely to have a future, and Wolf and Holloway have as few prospects for the future as they did at the outset of the play.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Two Trains Running was produced contemporaneously with a resurgence of interest in black power, marked perhaps most notably by Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X. Watch Lee's film and research other treatments of the black power movement during the 1990s, and then deliver a class presentation analyzing why and how the movement was portrayed during the decade. How and why did such treatments tend to differ from historical reality? Why might they have been popular? What might they reflect about African American culture in the 1990s? How does Wilson's play compare to them?
- Wilson is known for his sensitivity to African American oral culture, including music. Listen to influential African American music of the 1960s, including bebop jazz musicians such as John Coltrane and black popular singers such as Aretha Franklin, and research the context and political associations of the music you have heard. Then, write a descriptive essay in which you speculate about how such music influenced the dialogue and rhythms of Two Trains Running. Which musical influences were most important to Wilson and why? Why might he have chosen Franklin's "Take a Look" as a backdrop to the love scene between Risa and Sterling? How might live or recorded music be used to various effects in productions of the play?
- Two Trains Running seems divided in its articulation of theories of personal freedom and social determination. Memphis declares that he is and always has been free, and no one can take this freedom away from him, but Holloway meditates on the complex ways in which white oppression determines an individual African American's destiny. Write an essay in which you analyze Wilson's treatment of these themes. Describe the play's implied viewpoint on these matters, and determine the manner in which it impresses them upon the audience. Support your analysis with examples from the text.
- Write a short play in which Memphis travels to Jackson, Mississippi, in order to demand back his land. Carefully study Memphis's character as it develops through Two Trains Running in order to pursue his emotional development during this difficult quest. Study also his manner of speaking, and imagine how people might speak differently in the South. Consider what is at stake for Memphis in this journey, how it relates to the political atmosphere of its era, and what social themes and positions you will articulate in your drama.
Various religious and political organizations, which are tied loosely or explicitly to institutions such as the Nation of Islam or figures such as Malcolm X, provide a way of rallying and organizing as a community. Sterling repeats black power slogans, and other characters believe or participate in African American community initiatives to some degree. Even Memphis comes by the end of the play to feel affectionate towards Hambone, a symbol of unwavering resistance to white exploitation. All of the characters are skeptical about the effectiveness of individual organizations and movements, however, and none seems to find any direct benefits from them.
Gambling and Spiritualism in the Black Community
The characters in Wilson's play express their frustration and address their problems in a variety of ways, sometimes through political action. Frequently, however, they resort either to gambling in the numbers game or subscribing to supernatural beliefs or both, in order to find hope and comfort. Wilson characterizes these two pursuits in somewhat similar terms, stressing the ways in which they make poor blacks poorer. Memphis and Wolf believe that the numbers game helps its players rise from poverty once in a long while to enjoy a brief period of prosperity, but Risa points out that it is simply a way of throwing away money. Wilson also consistently associates religious and supernatural comforts with poor blacks' throwing away money, since Aunt Ester always advises her clients to throw money into the river and Prophet Samuel may have cheated people for donations. Spiritualism and gambling do help poor blacks to survive day to day, however, and Wilson's main goal in highlighting them may be to point out that the desperation among the black urban poor has no productive or effective outlet. They may be signs, rather than causes, of the desperate circumstances of African Americans living in Pittsburgh's Hill District.
Individual and Social Justice
Each of Wilson's characters feels some mix of resentment, anger, despair, and responsibility for his/her relationship to institutions of power, and Wilson is interested in comparing and evaluating these various attitudes. Memphis insists that he holds complete personal responsibility for his own freedom, for example, while Holloway is resigned to the idea that white people have always oppressed African Americans and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Other characters have a mix of personal and institutional allegiances, most of which have to do with race relations; while Wolf seems loosely comfortable with working for a white-run gambling association, Sterling feels that his situation is hopeless and turns to organizations such as the black power movement for support. Risa and Holloway find consolation and support mainly in religious beliefs that seem to distract attention from issues of justice altogether. Inescapably at issue in the play, however, is the question of how personal freedom relates to social forces, and Wilson is interested in expressing the limited possibilities available to individual black people within a system of continued inequality and turbulence.
Unity of Place
Although Two Trains Running focuses on the changing circumstances of an entire community and describes large-scale events, such as rallies and funerals, the entire play takes place inside a small restaurant. Wilson thus follows a dramatic convention called the unity of place, a term invented to describe the tendency in ancient Greek drama for all of the action to occur in a single location.
One function of this formal choice is to achieve a sense of realism, since the audience does not have to imagine being transported for a change of scene. Wilson provides a full and sharp view of Memphis's restaurant, allowing the audience to experience a large range of emotion within a place that they begin to know well. The playwright establishes a kind of window on the world that he wishes to describe, one that can be both private and social. The restaurant provides a space in which the communal or external as well as the personal and intimate aspects of the characters' lives come into view.
Specific Character Descriptions
Wilson is known for his minutely detailed descriptions which state outright a character's fundamental motivations. Before the play begins, for example, the stage directions indicate that Memphis's "greatest asset is his impeccable logic," a judgment that is not necessarily or entirely evident from the lines themselves, since Memphis's logic sometimes seems fuzzy or variable. Playwrights are often less aggressive in defining a character's role and purpose, since doing so leaves the work open to interpretation for individual productions or readers, although some may choose to view Wilson's character descriptions as suggestive but not definitive. Wilson's practice may be a method of assisting production companies and actors in fulfilling his intentions. Also, they may have the effect of bringing the characters to life for those reading the play.
African American Literary Culture before 1990
Mainstream drama in the United States changed significantly in the later part of the twentieth century, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, to include more work by and about minorities. This was by no means a straightforward development, since there was continued opposition to theater, literature, and other arts that were seen as insufficiently American. Figures such as Wilson, however, widely increased the visibility and availability of theater that focused on the experience and traditions of cultural and racial groups that had long been sidelined or ignored.
When Wilson began writing drama in the 1970s, artists and intellectuals had been working for many years to focus less on a traditional canon of white drama and more on the unique history and culture of African Americans. Cultural figures, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, were part of black literary scene that flowered from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s and continued through the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Writers, including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Amiri Baraka, continued during the 1970s and 1980s to highlight African American cultural history and explore its relationship to white culture and structures of power. Angelou and Morrison have been important figures in relating African American cultural history as a whole to the experience of women, and they have helped to impress upon U.S. culture the ways in which minority categories overlapped and combined in patterns of oppression. Baraka, who was one of Wilson's greatest influences, was widely influential and controversial in emphasizing the relationship between art and politics. Wilson himself was a pioneering figure, along with his mentor Lloyd Richards, in carving out a place for African American culture and history in the contemporary theater.
Late 1960s Political and Social Upheaval
Two Trains Running is set at a highly symbolic and significant point in African American political and social history, at the end of the U.S. civil rights movement and at the height of the influence of the black power movement. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) and other figures led a prominent and successful campaign to guarantee equal rights for all citizens under the law during the 1950s and 1960s. Nonviolent resistance tactics were perhaps chiefly responsible for achieving victories in the courts and in legislation that led to the dismantling of laws that discriminated against blacks and segregated U.S. society into racial groups. In 1968, shortly before the events of Wilson's play, President Lyndon Johnson signed the second Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory practices in housing.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1969: The African American community has secured major legal victories as part of the civil rights movement, but blacks remain economically depressed in comparison to whites.
1990: African Americans have made economic advances due in part to affirmative action and other social initiatives, and black-owned businesses are on the rise.
Today: Despite major advances, African Americans continue to encounter discrimination and remain significantly more likely than whites to be poor.
- 1969: President Richard Nixon leads the United States in the bloody and extended Vietnam War, which later ends in complete U.S. withdrawal.
Today: Years after President George W. Bush deploys U.S. forces to invade and conquer Iraq, the United States military remains engaged in the violent and unstable country.
By 1969, many African Americans continued to feel frustration and disappointment with their status in U.S. society. The civil rights era had marked major legal advances, but its victories did not translate into immediate or widespread improvements in economic circumstances, and great numbers of blacks remained extremely poor with very limited prospects. Many African Americans also continued to feel the loss of leaders, including Malcolm X (1925-1965) and Martin Luther King Jr.; major riots broke out in U.S. cities following the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968). As a result of these and other factors, increasing numbers of blacks began to support institutions that did not confine themselves to peaceful resistance tactics, such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party.
So-called black power organizations did not necessarily share the same beliefs or goals; the Black Panther Party was explicitly revolutionary and violent in its philosophy, while Nation of Islam was a religious institution that preached black superiority over other races. However, such groups did tend to share a dedication to African American solidarity and self-assurance, which is why they have been identified as part of the black power movement. The phrase black power itself is a political slogan that was associated with black nationalism and self-determination. The black power movement had a wide following in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but its effects were limited at best, since it did not directly inspire clear economic or social gains for blacks. In part because of its violent associations and its tendency to identify blacks as superior to whites, it was widely viewed as dangerous and threatening to white U.S. society.
By the time Two Trains Running opened at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1990, Wilson had already achieved the status of a prestigious and eminent dramatist. The play itself was generally well-received, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, and was the recipient of an American Theatre Critics' Association Award. Beginning with its 1992 Broadway opening, however, a critical debate raged about how Two Trains Running compared to Wilson's earlier work. As they had his previous play, The Piano Lesson, some critics in the mass media claimed that Wilson was becoming less poetic in his rendition of African American life. Mimi Kramer of the New Yorker suggested that Two Trains Running did not function as eloquently and subtly as Wilson's earlier efforts, and Clive Barnes of the New York Post criticized the play's lack of dramatic elegance.
Other periodicals praised Wilson's efforts; William A. Henry III writes in Time that "Two Trains Running is Wilson's most delicate and mature
work, if not necessarily his most explosive or dramatic." In Massachusetts Review, Robert L. King notes that the "civil rights movement rolls on past" Wilson's characters and highlights the political implications of the play: "Larger-than-life figures won't correct the injustices of their grocer and bookie, and saints don't connect to the Afro-American values that Wilson celebrates." Academic criticism also tends to discuss the work's upfront political agenda. In her influential book of criticism The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, for example, Sandra Shannon notes Wilson's expression of loss over the "debris of an explosive era in black awareness" and his appeal to black youth "to look to the African continuum as inspiration for their cultural preservation and continued advancement."
Trudell is a doctoral student of English literature at Rutgers University. In the following essay, he discusses Wilson's nuanced critique of AfricanAmerican spiritual organizations and traditions, which in Two Trains Running do not tend to act in the genuine interests of poor blacks.
Two Trains Running is perhaps principally intended as an expression of the frustration and sense of tragedy on the part of lower-class, urban-dwelling African Americans who find themselves bypassed and sidelined by the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s. Wilson creates a sense of doom surrounding even Memphis, who seems to have won a great victory in the amount of money that the city gives him for his restaurant. Taking instruction from Aunt Ester, the mysterious spiritualist who helps African Americans feel better about their problems, Memphis vows to go back and "pick up the ball," or regain his lost sense of pride and self-righteousness by winning his land from the white family that took it in Jackson, Mississippi. His glaring and ominous phrase, "if I get back from seeing Stoval," however, leaves a sense of gaping doubt and insecurity about the wisdom of this enterprise.
Even if Memphis were able to return and open a big new restaurant, it seems likely that he would leave his friends and neighbors behind. Holloway, Wolf, and Risa probably have even more difficult times ahead, since their neighborhood is about to be demolished, and Sterling is almost certainly bound for prison. Wilson thus alludes to the decline and desperation that would plague African Americans in inner city neighborhoods such as Pittsburgh's Hill District in the 1970s and 1980s. A complex variety of social and political forces and organizations are to blame for this grim reality, and Wilson highlights some of them individually or by implication in the course of the play. Continued white oppression is the greatest and most powerful threat, as Holloway stresses in his eloquent speech about the ways in which whites have always "stacked" African Americans. Wilson is sensitive to other problems as well, however, and in fact one of his most interesting critiques is of black spiritualism. The subtle, yet incisive, manner in which Wilson criticizes belief in the "supernatural," as he refers to religious or spiritual belief, is one of the most intriguing aspects of his politically charged drama.
Wilson is sympathetic to the idea that poor blacks must find some way of easing their minds and enjoying life despite their continued difficulties. When he brings up amusements and releases such as those offered by spiritualism and gambling, he carefully outlines the desperation that gives rise to them. Before she meets Sterling, Risa finds little comfort in life outside the counsel of Prophet Samuel, who seems to give her the empowerment and faith in herself that she needs to get through the day. Holloway, meanwhile, justifies the practice of throwing twenty dollars into the river at Aunt Ester's bidding based on the idea that it changes one's attitude and allows one to become comfortable with the inequities of the world. Aunt Ester is the only recourse he has in dealing with his infuriating grandfather, and Memphis comes to rely on her as well for advice on how to deal with his old demons. Similarly, Memphis explains that the numbers game may take money away from blacks, but it is also the only way that they are able to come by a large sum at once, with which they can buy something that they really want. He blames the "cheat[ing]" government for the fact that poor blacks are unable to save any money, while Wolf blames the rich white banker Mellon.
Understanding as he is of the conditions that lead poor African Americans to invest their time and money in gambling and supernatural belief, however, Wilson is sharply critical of the organizations that profit from them. Risa provides a blunt critique of the men for wasting their money in the numbers game, and the play seems to prove her point when the white Albert family cuts the winnings on Sterling. Sterling's encounter with Old Man Albert, in which he attempts a futile and somewhat pathetic gesture of pride by proclaiming that he has "something that belong to [Old Man Albert] for a change," leaves little doubt that poor blacks are accustomed to being cheated by the Alberts. Sterling's insignificant attempt at self-assertion, in which he gains a measly two dollars while the other half of his rightful winnings remain in Old Man Albert's pocket, reinforces the idea that gambling is little more than an extremely effective method by which white organizations are able to exploit the black poor.
Though perhaps more subtle in their process of cheating poor African Americans than groups tied to organized crime, spiritual organizations are little better at the end of the day in terms of the financial burden they impose on their followers. Evidence indicates, for example, that Prophet Samuel was adept and well-practiced at garnering large donations from the poor. Wilson is careful to emphasize that Risa's membership card to the First African Congregational Kingdom includes the phrase "having duly paid all tithing" and that Prophet Samuel's followers charged for admission to the visitation before West stopped them. There is no suggestion that Prophet Samuel managed to secure any real gains for the black community, however. On the contrary, Holloway indicates that the former income tax-evader has substantial and suspect connections to Mellon, the same white banker and speculator whom Wolf has blamed for keeping poor blacks poor.
Aunt Ester seems on the surface to be a more benign figure, and indeed she is effective at helping African Americans feel better about themselves. She makes it possible for Holloway to lead a peaceful life, contents Sterling for a brief period, and prompts some of Memphis's self-assurance at the end of the play. Beneath the surface, however, runs an indication that Aunt Ester is in fact a great threat to black prosperity. Her continual insistence that blacks throw significant amounts of cash into the river, her advice that Holloway ignore the dangerous and regressive behavior of his master-loving grandfather, and her ominous advice that Memphis "go back and pick up the ball," if indeed this means that he should return to Mississippi, seem counter-productive, if not dangerous. Supernatural beliefs may bring comfort to those who subscribe to them, but these pose a significant threat to their financial wellbeing and social advancement.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Wilson's Fences (1985) focuses on an ex-convict and baseball player who is locked in a desperate struggle with his son. Its sensitive depiction of themes which are widely supposed to be autobiographical has won it a place as one of the finest achievements in late-twentieth-century drama.
- Dutchman (1964), by Amiri Baraka, is a stark and shocking depiction of a white woman's efforts to take sexual advantage of a black man.
- In Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison's widely successful and influential novel about African American history and the supernatural, a black woman murders her own child to avoid her being returned to slavery.
- James Baldwin's Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) is not one of the prolific author's most well-known novels, but it provides a powerful meditation on social and political change and the impact of celebrity and art on a black man's development. Written at the very moment at which Two Trains Running is set, it is very much of its era.
- New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975 (1993), by William L. Van Deburg, is a classic work of scholarship which analyzes what was at stake during the turbulent period in African American history that serves as the setting for Wilson's play.
Wilson's implication against practicing super-natural belief is loaded with political significance, not least because the leadership of the African American community that was prominent before, during, and after the civil rights movement was so closely associated with religion and spirituality. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Baptist minister, Malcolm X was a leading figure in the Nation of Islam before he broke away from the organization, and black civil rights leaders continued to organize and develop community initiatives through religious bonds during the late-1960s and beyond. In highlighting the misleading and dangerous aspects of spiritual leadership, Wilson is calling into question many heroes and traditions of twentieth-century African American history.
Aunt Ester is a particularly rich symbolic figure in this regard, since she claims to have been alive for almost exactly the time period that Africans had lived in North America after they were abducted by European slave traders. As a figure of African American history and tradition, she represents many of the cultural ideas that Wilson is known to revere and identify as important. Furthermore, though his specific organizational association is left ambiguous, Prophet Samuel is strikingly reminiscent of leadership figures in the Nation of Islam. An institution known for preaching of signs from heaven, African superiority, and justice for black people, the Nation of Islam affirms many of Prophet Samuel's beliefs, as is clear from Risa's comments, such as "God sent him to help the colored people get justice" and, referring to the idea of the world coming to an end, "He said God was gonna send a sign." The Nation of Islam was known to be plagued by corruption and poor leadership decisions, and it might be an intended target of Holloway's criticism of Prophet Samuel's hypocrisy in his claim to be working towards the best interests of the black community.
Again, insofar as Wilson is critiquing or attacking the black spiritualist traditions, his is a mixed message. Prophet Samuel may not help Sterling and Risa to great fortunes, but they may be doomed in any case, unable to make any real advances until they feel comfortable and positive about themselves. Similarly, it is doubtful that ignoring Aunt Ester and refusing to play the numbers game in order to focus on moneymaking is a tenable solution to African American desperation. As Holloway points out, African American attempts to work within the white-dominated capitalist system is like toting a bucket of sand with a hole in it. West is a good example of this phenomenon, since he turns away from gambling in order to concentrate on money-making and refuses to follow Aunt Ester's advice but is deeply discontent and does not have a positive relationship with his neighbors. He may have lost all that was positive and meaningful in his life by capitalizing on the misfortunes of fast-living and fast-dying black people.
Nevertheless, Wilson's cynicism about black spiritualism during the late-1960s serves as a powerful reminder that it is dangerous to blindly idealize the spiritual heroes of the civil rights movement. Two Trains Running suggests that these leaders had a long way to go before finding effective solutions to African American segregation and exploitation. In fact, institutions and traditions posing as forthright contributors to black advancement may well have been corrupt, ineffective, misleading, and even dangerous to their followers. Aunt Ester and Prophet Samuel may have made Wilson's characters feel better about themselves in the short term, and they may have provided nuggets of wisdom about black pride and self-assurance with the potential to be very valuable. It may be that Memphis does, for example, have to confront the ghosts of his past before he can move on. The play provides a warning signal, however, that supernatural traditions and organizations are not necessarily to be trusted or emulated, since instructions of figures like Aunt Ester are as likely to worsen the situation of poor blacks as they are to provide any relief.
Source: Scott Trudell, Critical Essay on Two Trains Running, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of August Wilson's work.
Critics have hailed August Wilson as an important talent in the American theater since the mid-1980s. He spent his childhood in poverty in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he lived with his parents and five siblings. Though he grew up in a poor family, Wilson felt that his parents withheld knowledge of even greater hardships they had endured. "My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents," he told the New York Times in 1984. "They shielded us from the indignities they suffered." Wilson's goal was to illuminate that shadowy past with plays that focus on black issues. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, and Seven Guitars are part of this ambitious project.
Wilson noted that his real education began when he was sixteen years old. Disgusted by the racist treatment he endured in the various schools he had attended until that time, he dropped out and began educating himself in the local library. Working at menial jobs, he also pursued a literary career and successfully submitted poems to black publications at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1968 he became active in the theater by founding—despite lacking prior experience—Black Horizons on the Hill, a theater company in Pittsburgh. Recalling his early theater involvement, Wilson described himself to the New York Times as "a cultural nationalist … trying to raise consciousness through theater."
According to several observers, however, Wilson found his artistic voice—and began to appreciate the black voices of Pittsburgh—after he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978. In St. Paul Wilson wrote his first play, Jitney!, a realistic drama set in a Pittsburgh taxi station. Jitney!, noted for the fidelity with which it portrayed black urban speech and life, had a successful engagement at a small theater in Pittsburgh. Wilson followed Jitney! with another play, Fullerton Street, but this work failed to strengthen his reputation.
Wilson then resumed work on an earlier unfinished project, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, a play about a black blues singer's exploitation of her fellow musicians. This work, whose title role is named after an actual blues singer from the 1920s, is set in a recording studio in 1927. In the studio, temperamental Ma Rainey verbally abuses the other musicians and presents herself—without justification—as an important musical figure. But much of the play is also set in a rehearsal room, where Ma Rainey's musicians discuss their abusive employer and the hardships of life in racist America.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom earned Wilson a trip to the O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference. There Wilson's play impressed director Lloyd Richards from the Yale Repertory Theatre. Richards worked with Wilson to refine the play, and when it was presented at Yale in 1984 it was hailed as the work of an important new playwright. Frank Rich, who reviewed the Yale production in the New York Times, acclaimed Wilson as "a major find for the American theater" and cited Wilson's ability to write "with compassion, raucous humor and penetrating wisdom."
Wilson enjoyed further success with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom after the play came to Broadway later in 1984. Chicago Tribune contributor Richard Christiansen reviewed the Broadway production as "a work of intermittent but immense power" and commended the "striking beauty" of the play's "literary and theatrical poetry." Christiansen added that "Wilson's power of language is sensational" and that Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was "the work of an impressive writer." The London Times's Holly Hill agreed, calling Wilson "a promising new playwright" and hailing his work as "a remarkable first play."
Wilson's subsequent plays include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, which is about a former athlete who forbids his son to accept an athletic scholarship, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which concerns an ex-convict's efforts to find his wife. Like Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, these plays underwent extensive rewriting. Guiding Wilson in this process was Lloyd Richards, dean of Yale's drama school and director of the school's productions of Wilson's plays. "August is a wonderful poet," Richards told the New York Times in 1986. "A wonderful poet turning into a playwright." Richards added that his work with Wilson involved "clarifying" each work's main theme and "arranging the material in a dynamic way."
Both Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone were praised when they played on American stages. The New York Times's Frank Rich, in his review of Fences, wrote that the play "leaves no doubt that Mr. Wilson is a major writer, combining a poet's ear for vernacular with a robust sense of humor (political and sexual), a sure instinct for cracking dramatic incident and passionate commitment to a great subject." And in his critique of Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Rich speculated that the play "will give a lasting voice to a generation of uprooted black Americans." Rich contended that the work was "potentially its author's finest achievement yet" and described it as "a teeming canvas of black America … and a spiritual allegory."
Wilson was intensely passionate about portraying the truth of the black experience, about being the voice of the ghetto. While he did not set out to create his plays in a series, it became clear to him that his plays in combination were creating a twentieth-century history of the black experience in America. "I'm taking each decade," Wilson said, "and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it. Put them all together, and you have a history."
In 1990 Wilson claimed his second Pulitzer Prize, this time for The Piano Lesson. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this drama pits brother against sister in a contest to decide the future of a treasured heirloom—a piano, carved with African-style portraits by their grandfather, an enslaved plantation carpenter. The brother wants to sell it to buy land, while the sister adamantly insists that the instrument carries too much family history to part with. Acclaim for the play was widespread, although some commentators were put off by the supernatural elements that came to play in the climax of this otherwise realistic piece. "When ghosts begin resolving realistic plays, you can be sure the playwright has failed to master his material," wrote Robert Brustein in the New Republic. Brustein also found the play overlong and repetitious, and asserted that Wilson's focus on the effects of racism was limiting him artistically. Others praised the work unreservedly, however, including Clive Barnes of the New York Post. He declared, "This is a play in which to lose yourself—to give yourself up … to August Wilson's thoughts, humors and thrills, all caught in a microcosm largely remote for many of us from our own little worlds, yet always talking the same language of humanity." Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote that Wilson has given "miraculous voice" to the black experience, and William A. Henry III of Time dubbed the play's piano "the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wingfield's glass menagerie" in the Tennessee Williams classic. Barnes concluded, "This is a wonderful play that lights up man. See it, wonder at it, and recognize it." Wilson later adapted The Piano Lesson for a Hallmark Hall of Fame television production. It was judged a success by John J. O'Connor, who wrote in the New York Times: "If anything, The Piano Lesson is even more effective in this shortened version."
Two Trains Running continued Wilson's projected ten-play cycle about black American history. The play, which came to Broadway in 1992, is set in a run-down diner on the verge of being sold. Reactions by the diner's regular patrons to the pending sale make up the body of the drama. Some critics, such as the New Yorker's Mimi Kramer, found the play less subtle and dramatic than its predecessors, but Newsweek's David Ansen praised the "musical eloquence" of Wilson's language, which he felt enhanced a "thematically rich" work. And Henry wrote in Time that Two Trains Running is a "delicate and mature" play that shows Wilson "at his lyrical best."
Two Trains Running was followed by Seven Guitars. Set in the 1940s, it recounts the tragic story of blues guitarist Floyd Barton, whose funeral opens the play. Action then flashes back to recreate the events of Floyd's last week of life. Seven Guitars was the first major production of a Wilson play without the direction of Richards, who was forced to abandon the project due to illness. The task of directing fell to Walter Dallas, whose staging at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago William Tynan characterized as "skillful" in a Time review. Yet the critic's overall assessment was mixed. "Part bawdy comedy, part dark elegy, part mystery," he wrote, "August Wilson's rich new play, Seven Guitars, nicely eludes categorization…. But though full and strong in its buildup, the play loses its potency as it reaches its climax…. Though Floyd is as charming and sympathetic a protagonist as we could want, the surprising truth is that his death has little effect on us. We leave the theater entertained and admiring but not truly moved." Vincent Canby differed markedly in his judgment, writing in the New York Times, "Though the frame of Seven Guitars is limited and employs only seven characters, Mr. Wilson writes so vividly that the play seems to have the narrative scope and depth of a novel. When the curtain comes down, it's difficult to remember which characters you've actually seen and which you have come to know only through stories recollected on stage…. Seven Guitars plays with such speed that you begin the journey one minute, and the next thing you know, you're leaving the theater on a high."
Further praise came from Newsweek reviewer Jack Kroll, who called Seven Guitars "a kind of jazz cantata for actors," with "a gritty, lyrical polyphony of voices that evokes the character and destiny of these men and women who can't help singing the blues even when they're just talking." The play, he continued, "bristles with symbolism" and with "anguished eloquence." Kroll found the protagonist's death "shocking, unexpected, yet inevitable" and the characters overall "not victims, wallowing in voluptuous resentment," but "tragic figures, bursting with the balked music of life."
Not long after Seven Guitars opened, Wilson gave a keynote address to the Theatre Communications Group National Conference. The address, titled "The Ground on Which I Stand," was first published in American Theatre in 1996. Wilson's remarks created critical controversy and feud. According to Jonathan Little, writing for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, this address "can be read as the culminating manifesto of his personal politics, his aesthetics, and his vision for the future." A series of responses and counterattacks appeared in print both from Wilson and from critic Robert Brustein, leading to the culmination of a debate on January 27, 1997, at the New York City Town Hall. Little reported that critical reaction to the debate was mixed with both plaudits and criticisms given to the arguments made by both men.
In 2001, Wilson's ninth play in his cyclic history opened on Broadway for a surprisingly brief twelve-week run. King Hedley II is a dark retrospective, drawing upon the life of title character King Hedley, an ex-convict attempting to rebuild his life in 1990s Pittsburgh. Hedley, who first appeared as "a cracked old man who sees ghosts" in Seven Guitars (a technique the playwright uses often, according to Ashyia Henderson in Contemporary Black Biography), deals with his past while figuring out how to go "legit" in the midst of the brutality of a black ghetto. The play depicts the decline of the black family and the prevalence of violence and guns in contemporary inner-city neighborhoods.
Discussing Wilson's body of work, Lawrence Bommer stated in the Chicago Tribune, "August Wilson has created the most complete cultural chronicle since Balzac wrote his vast ‘Human Comedy,’ an artistic whole that has grown even greater than its prize-winning parts." As for the playwright, he repeatedly stressed that his first objective is simply getting his work produced. "All I want is for the most people to get to see this play," he told the New York Times while discussing Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Wilson added, however, that he was not opposed to having his works performed on Broadway. He told the New York Times that Broadway "still has the connotation of Mecca" and asked, "Who doesn't want to go to Mecca?"
In September of 2005, Wilson announced that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer. He died shortly after he made his illness known to the public.
Source: Thomson Gale, "August Wilson," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay, Little gives a critical analysis of August Wilson's work.
August Wilson is one of the leading American playwrights of the late twentieth century. He has been phenomenally successful, having won two Pulitzers, five New York Drama Critics Circle awards, and several Tonys in a long list of prestigious awards, grants, and fellowships. In a rare occurrence, in 1988 Wilson had two plays running simultaneously on Broadway—Fences (first performed in 1985) and Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1986). Dedicated to representing blacks from every decade of the century in a ten-play cycle, Wilson has completed seven of these plays. He has already expanded the range of American theater by documenting and celebrating black historical experience and by showing that embracing the African spiritual and cultural heritage can bring individual and collective healing for blacks.
In addition to his themes of the search for identity, racial exploitation and injustice, empowerment through the blues, and spiritual regeneration, his success results in part from how he has translated the specifics of black life into the conventions of realism and naturalism. While he adheres to traditional dramatic form, his plays imply no easy answers. Complex and mysterious, his plays show the poisonous effects of a bitter legacy on black individuals and their communities and include thrilling if infrequent moments of personal liberation.
Most of Wilson's plays take place in a tightly knit black neighborhood in Pittsburgh once known as the Hill, a sloping ten-block area that has now disappeared because of an "urban renewal" project. Wilson often laments the demise of the economically viable black community, an attitude informed by his experience growing up in such a community. Indeed, in a 1992 article written for Life magazine, "The Legacy of Malcolm X," Wilson, visiting from his home in Seattle, mourns the loss of the safe neighborhood he knew as a child when he was a newspaper carrier. Walking down streets blood-spattered by drug-related gang violence, he reminisces fondly about the former thriving community, where black-owned "stores and shops of every kind were wedged in among churches, bars and funeral homes" and where 55,000 people lived with a "zest and energy that belied their meager means."
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in this Hill neighborhood on 27 April 1945, to an African American mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, and a white German father, Frederick August Kittel, who all but abandoned them soon after August was born. August was one of six children and grew up in poverty in a two-room apartment above a grocery store. His mother supported her family with cleaning jobs and encouraged her children to read, teaching August to read at age four.
Wilson idolized his mother, who died in 1983, just a year before his first Broadway success. As an adult he changed his name to hers to reflect his allegiance to his mother and his African American heritage. Growing up in her household taught him the defining features of black culture and day-to-day life.
When Wilson was an adolescent, his mother remarried, to African American David Bedford, who moved them to Hazelwood, a mostly white suburb; there Wilson and his family were victims of racist vandalism and abuse. Wilson dropped out of high school at age fifteen after refusing to defend himself against false charges of plagiarism on a paper he had written about Napoleon Bonaparte, and after suffering from racist taunts.
After dropping out of school, Wilson spent much time in the library, preparing himself to be a writer and hoping for several months that his mother would not find out that he was not in school. He was largely self-taught, educating himself by reading all that he could by the writers in the black literature section of the library, including Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Amiri Baraka, as well as books on black anthropology and sociology.
The year he was twenty, 1965, was a pivotal one for Wilson. He moved out of his mother's home into a rooming house and joined a group of young black intellectuals, poets, and playwrights. Then on 1 April 1965, Wilson bought his first typewriter and began his career as a poet. Although he recognizes his limitations as a poet, Wilson refers to his poetic work as a vocation that has deeply informed his playwrighting, especially in his expertise with metaphor. As a young poet, Wilson published in several small periodicals, including Black World, Connections, and Black Lines, and also read his work at local art houses. One of his poems, "For Malcolm X and Others," published in the Negro Digest in 1969, is a darkly cryptic homage to Black Power leaders he refers to as a "flock of saints."
Later in the fall of 1965, he heard Malcolm X's recorded voice for the first time. Although the media has tended to downplay this aspect of Wilson's career and life, the Black Power movement was, as he says in "The Ground on Which I Stand" (1996), "the kiln in which I was fired." He was drawn to the Black Power and Nation of Islam messages of self-sufficiency, self-defense, and self-determination, and appreciated the origin myths espoused by the controversial leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad. In 1969 Wilson married Brenda Burton, a Muslim, and briefly converted to Islam in an unsuccessful attempt to sustain the marriage. They had a daughter, Sakina Ansari-Wilson, and divorced in 1972.
Deeply moved by the messages of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, Wilson became a founder of the Black Horizon on the Hill Theater in Pittsburgh with writer and teacher Rob Penny. The theater operated from 1968 to 1978. It produced Wilson's first plays and allowed him and others to celebrate the Black Aesthetic, to participate in the Black Power movement, and to discuss the influences of Baraka and Malcolm X. In addition to Baraka, the black playwrights Wilson was most influenced by include Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Philip Hayes Dean, Richard Wesley, Lonne Elder III, Sonia Sanchez, and Barbara Ann Teer.
However, in a 1984 interview with Hilary Davies, Wilson differentiated between black theater of the late 1960s and his own less didactic dramatic vision, calling his a more "internal examination" of African American life rather than the "pushing outward" of overt political propaganda. In "August Wilson and the Four B's: Influences," included in August Wilson: A Casebook (1994), critic Mark William Rocha argues that while Wilson's plays, like Baraka's, center around confrontations with whites, there is the "signal difference that in Wilson's plays the confrontation occurs off-stage so that emphasis is placed not so much on the confrontation itself, but upon how the black community invests itself in that face-to-face encounter." Also, unlike the more exclusionary aesthetics held by Baraka and other Black Arts Movement proponents, Wilson often stresses the cross-cultural universals of drama and art. In his preface to Three Plays (1991) Wilson reflects on his first empowering experiences in writing drama: "When I sat down to write I realized I was sitting in the same chair as Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, Amiri Baraka, and Ed Bullins." He asserts that regardless of race, all playwrights face the same problems of crafting convincing drama and characters.
Besides a typewriter, the other important purchase that Wilson made in 1965 was a used Victrola and several 78 rpm jazz and blues records for five cents each from a nearby St. Vincent de Paul's store. He often speaks of the profound impact of listening to the blues, and specifically Bessie Smith, for the first time, including her hit song "Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jellyroll Like Mine." Hearing her voice validated the complexity, nobility, and spirituality of African American folk expression for him and increased his own self-esteem and sense of himself as a member of the black community. He has called the blues the well-spring of his art, and he frequently talks about the historical value of the blues as an emotionally charged and sacred vehicle for keeping an empowering African-based oral culture alive.
Besides the blues, the other chief influences on Wilson are black artist Romare Bearden, Baraka (mostly for his black nationalist ideas rather than his plays), and Argentinean fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges. Wilson admires how Borges tells a story in nontraditional ways to create suspense. He uses Borges's postmodern method of revealing the ending at the beginning and then working backward in Seven Guitars (1995), which begins and ends with a central character's funeral. Bearden's collages and paintings also provided direct inspiration for at least two of Wilson's plays. Wilson has called Bearden his artistic mentor; through drama Wilson seeks to reproduce Bearden's ability to capture the richness and diversity of black culture.
Wilson relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1978 after visiting his friend Claude Purdy, who was the director of the Penumbra Theatre, and after being introduced to Judy Oliver, a social worker in St. Paul who in 1982 became his second wife. At first Wilson worked for the Science Museum of Minnesota, writing plays to enhance their exhibits. He quit this job in 1981 but continued writing plays, and for three years he was also a part-time cook for a benevolent organization, Little Brothers of the Poor. While in St. Paul, he established ties with the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. Despite his close attachment to Pittsburgh, it was only after he moved far away from his Pittsburgh home that he was able to hear the black voices of his past and translate them effectively into drama. One factor that stimulated his growth was learning how to write plays by listening to his characters and asking them questions rather than by asserting his authorial control and forcing them into certain situations or political positions. Wilson lived in St. Paul until 1990, when he moved to Seattle and his marriage to Oliver ended.
Wilson's first taste of success came in 1981 when one of his first plays, Jitney, was accepted by the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis, where it was staged in 1982 and met with critical acclaim. Jitney is set in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, in a gypsy (jitney) cab station scheduled for demolition. The plot bears some resemblance to Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), since one of the main characters—Booster— takes his revenge on a white girl who accused him of rape, by killing her and wounding her father. Academic critics highlight the importance of Jitney in Wilson's development as a dramatist. Sandra G. Shannon writes that the play "marks the beginning of both a private and professional journey for Wilson," since it takes place in Pittsburgh and anticipates many of the familiar themes of Wilson's later historical-cycle plays.
Wilson frequently talks about the liberation he felt as a writer in returning to and re-creating the voices and environment he knew growing up. His second play, "Fullerton Street," which was written in 1980, has remained unpublished and unproduced. Set in the 1940s on the night of the famous Joe Louis-Billy Khan fight, it concerns the loss of values attendant with the Great Migration to the urban North. In an interview with Shannon, Wilson reflects on the experience of writing "Fullerton Street," particularly his emotions when he killed off the central character's mother.
With the encouragement of a friend, in 1981 Wilson started submitting his plays to the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut. After four of his early plays—including Jitney, "Black Bart and the Sacred Hills" (a satiric musical), and "Fullerton Street"—were rejected, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was accepted. It opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven on 6 April 1984 and ran through 21 April. The acceptance of the play marked the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between Wilson and Lloyd Richards, Eugene O'Neill Center director and dean of the Yale School of Drama, who collaborated on most of Wilson's plays as they moved from first runs at the Yale Repertory Theatre to Broadway. Wilson frequently stresses the profound influence his collaborative work with Richards has had on his plays and on his revision process, and Richards frequently lauds Wilson's talent for creating authentic black voices for the theater.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom opened at the Cort Theater on Broadway in October 1984 and ran for 275 performances. Wilson, relatively unprepared for the limelight and still struggling financially, was stunned by the enormous success of the play. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and several Tony nominations; soon afterward, Wilson won several prestigious fellowships that allowed him to devote his attentions to full-time writing.
Unlike his other plays, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is set in Chicago in 1927. The title of the play refers, on one level, to the historical Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (1886-1939), one of the first immensely popular African American blues singers. In "Speaking of Ma Rainey/Talking About the Blues," included in May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson (1994), Sandra Adell writes, "For the folk down home and down-home folk up North, Ma Rainey represented the epitome of black female wealth, power, and sensuality." The title of Wilson's play refers to Rainey's hit song "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Blues" (also a black clog dance popular in the 1920s), while on another level it refers to her self-empowerment, effectively showing her white audience and record producers her "black bottom" in an act of defiance.
The play concerns a single afternoon in a studio in a disastrous recording effort. The play foregrounds the frustration and tension of racial exploitation and its explosive effects on blacks. It builds toward a stunning, and somewhat unexpected, climax in which one of the central characters, Levee, the trumpeter, stabs a fellow band-member, Toledo, for accidentally stepping on his shoe. Levee's motivation seems to stem not from Toledo's action but more from the accumulated years of frustration and the bitterness of second-class citizenship. The first act ends, for instance, with Levee relating the horrific story of how his mother was raped and his father was murdered by white Southern racists. In interviews Wilson has repeatedly identified Levee as one of his characters possessing an admirable "warrior-spirit"—one who refuses to accept his oppression and lashes out against injustice in the manner of Nat Turner or Toussaint L'Ouverture. In this case Levee's revenge-inspired violence is misdirected, and perhaps stimulated by the white music producers' mistreatment of him; but the spirit is there nonetheless.
Despite the title of the play, the focus is not on Ma Rainey, but on the tensions and conflicts between the four male members of her backup band, who each represent different facets of the African American community and who chafe under the white producers' demeaning economic patronage, the artistic limitations of the outdated "jug"-band format, and Ma Rainey's control. They argue, for example, about which version of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" they are going to play—the traditional version or the updated one with a new introduction by Levee.
Despite her relative absence on stage, however, Ma Rainey plays a significant role in the play. She dramatizes one of Wilson's major influences— the blues. Once Ma Rainey finally arrives at the recording session late in the play, she speaks eloquently about the significance of the blues, despite the fact that the white recording industry and her white audience treat her like a "whore" or a "dog in the alley." As the Mother of the Blues, she summarizes their significance: they make it possible for African Americans to endure and to cope with and understand a difficult life. The bluesmen in the play alleviate their sense of frustration through soaring riffs and idiosyncratic renditions of classic songs, including her signature song. Despite all its intraracial and interracial conflict, the performance is a tribute to the sustaining power of the blues and their profound visceral impact.
Critics generally embraced the play for its seriousness during what a critic for The Washington Post (18 November 1984) called "a shockingly bankrupt season." Reviewers praised the superb acting, especially that of Charles S. Dutton as Levee, as well as the depiction of black vernacular speech in the play and the direction of Lloyd Richards. In his 12 October 1984 review for The New York Times Frank Rich argued that the significance of the play is that it "sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads" through its "searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims." In his "spell-binding voice," Wilson crafts a play that is "funny, salty, carnal, and lyrical." In one of the few negative reviews of the play, Clive Barnes of The New York Post (12 October 1984) complained that, while he admired the fine acting and the sense of characterization, not enough happened in the play.
In a 1991 article for Black American Literature Forum Sandra G. Shannon answers Barnes's criticism of insufficient action by arguing that the play is a "disturbing look at the consequences of waiting, especially as it relates to the precarious lot of black musicians during the pre-Depression era." She posits that the play dramatizes this waiting motif through its constant use of stalling, delay, and deferment: "Forever practicing to become but never actually ‘arriving’ describes each of the musicians' predicament." In "August Wilson's Burden: The Function of Neoclassical Jazz," included in May All Your Fences Have Gates, Craig Werner makes the opposite point that the play affirms the call-and-response jazz or blues spirit, and seeks to identify the source of the historical Ma Rainey's popularity: "the people respond to Ma's response to the call of their own burdens, their lived blues."
Fences, Wilson's second major success as a playwright, was to a certain extent written in response to the more diffuse structure of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. It was written quickly on the heels of the success of the latter play. In interviews Wilson admitted to being worried about being a one-time black playwright who achieved success and then sold out to an unsuccessful career in Hollywood—the fate suffered by several of his predecessors. After warm-up runs at the Eugene O'Neill Center, the Yale Repertory Theater, Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco, Fences opened on Broadway in 1987 at the Forty-sixth Street Theater and ran for more than five hundred performances. It won four Tonys, the Pulitzer Prize, and the New York Drama Circle Critics Award and garnered almost unanimous praise from critics, especially for the acting of James Earl Jones, who played the lead character, Troy Maxson.
In an interview with Richard Pettengil, included in August Wilson: A Casebook, Wilson stated that in writing Fences he wanted to create a play that featured a single central character who is in nearly every scene. Fences is set in the late 1950s in Pittsburgh and focuses on fifty-three-year-old Troy, a former convict and baseball player, now a sanitation worker. Like the black characters in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Troy is still angry that he was denied the opportunity for economic and professional success. While he became a star in the Negro League after learning to play baseball in prison, he was unfairly denied the chance to play in the Major Leagues because of the color line; he is only angered by the success of Jackie Robinson and others in the now desegregated Majors. He possesses a "warrior-spirit" similar to Levee's, as he continues to battle the demons of injustice. He also repeatedly battles against Death, using his baseball bat. During the play Troy builds a fence around his backyard, at the urging of his wife. As critics have noted, the figurative meanings of the fences are many: the fences between the races, between past and present, between life and death, and between Troy and his family.
When his son Cory is offered an opportunity to play football in college on a scholarship, Troy forces the past to repeat itself by ruining his son's chances at the scholarship and, therefore, a professional career. Unlike Cory, who is part of a new generation more hopeful for social change, Troy sees manual labor as the black man's only reliable means of survival in a racist society. Fences includes strong scenes of father-son conflicts that are not even entirely resolved at the end of the play, set in 1965 at Troy's funeral.
Samuel G. Freedman, in a 1987 article on Wilson for The New York Times Magazine, points out that the plot of Fences and the character of Troy Maxson reflect an important experience in Wilson's own life, despite Wilson's often-quoted assertion that he does not write strictly autobiographical plays. After his stepfather, David Bedford, died in 1969, Wilson discovered that Bedford had been a high school sports star of the 1930s. Since no Pittsburgh college would give a black player a scholarship, Bedford turned to crime and decided to rob a store, killing a man during the robbery. He then spent twenty-three years in prison. Like Bedford, Troy turned to crime to support his family and was convicted of assault and armed robbery, spending fifteen years in prison. But whereas Troy encouraged his son to drop out of organized sports as a way of protecting him from disappointment, Bedford had been angry with Wilson for dropping out of football in his teens.
Unlike the critical response to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the reception of Fences was almost unanimously positive. Barnes, who had been somewhat critical of Wilson's first Broadway play, fully embraced Fences, calling it in the New York Theatre Critics Reviews (30 March 1987) "the strongest, most passionate American writing since Tennessee Williams." A reviewer for the Village Voice (17 April 1987) called Wilson a mythmaker, a folk ethnologist, "collecting prototypical stories, testimonies, rituals of speech and behavior" while working with "basically naturalistic panorama plays" to create complex characters, none of whom are "unindicted or unforgiven." Another critic for the New York Magazine (6 April 1987) praised Fences for its universal qualities, calling it an "elegant play" not only because of its artful and fluid composition but also because in it "race is subsumed by humanity." The play "marks a long step forward for Wilson's dramaturgy."
Fences has not been made into a movie, perhaps in part because of controversy over a director. In "I Want a Black Director" (1990) Wilson reveals that Paramount Pictures, who purchased the movie rights in 1987, suggested white director Barry Levinson as their leading candidate. In his opinion piece Wilson gives his reasons for opposing a white director and attacks Paramount Pictures (and Hollywood in general) for not believing enough in black directors' abilities. Wilson argues that a white director does not share the same cultural specifics of black society that a black director would. He declined Levinson as a director, "not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture." Wilson ends the piece lamenting the fact that he is still waiting for Paramount Pictures to make the play into a movie. Yet, as Yvonne Shafer reports, Fences and Joe Turner's Come and Gone netted Wilson more than a million dollars in 1987-1988. The mayor of St. Paul named 27 May 1987 "August Wilson Day" to honor the fact that Wilson was the only Minnesota resident to win a Pulitzer for drama.
With his next play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Wilson achieved another notable success. Both Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Fences ran on Broadway at the same time; critics commented on how unusual this circumstance was for a black playwright. After a warm-up run at the Yale Repertory Production from 29 April to 24 May 1986, Joe Turner's Come and Gone ran on Broadway from 26 March 1988 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre for 105 performances.
The play, which Wilson calls his favorite, is set in 1911 in a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh. As Wilson states in his preface to the play, the boardinghouse is a meeting place for those "sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves" who are trying to re-create their identity and to find "a song worth singing" that will make them self-sufficient. As his characters move to what is reputedly greater opportunity in the North, they necessarily become more dependent on the empowering legacies of the past and on Southern black-vernacular culture.
As Wilson has stated in several interviews, the play was initially inspired by a Bearden painting called Mill Hand's Lunch Bucket (1978). The painting is an eerie and fragmentary collage depicting a boardinghouse with shadowy black figures. Fascinated especially by the mysterious man in the middle of the painting, who became a model for one of the central characters, Wilson first adopted the title of Bearden's collage as the title of his play. He changed the working title of the play after listening to the famous W. C. Handy blues song "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." Joe Turner was an historical figure who pressed Southern freedmen into servitude with impunity at the turn of the century because he was the brother of the Tennessee governor. Handy's song, thought to be one of the earliest blues songs ever recorded, is sung from the perspective of a woman who has lost her man to Joe Turner.
The most explosive character of the play, Herald Loomis, experiences firsthand the cruelty of the Reconstructed South and Joe Turner's reign of terror. He is falsely imprisoned for seven years of hard physical labor by the powerful Tennessee plantation owner. A former deacon, Loomis is a broken and angry man when he arrives at the boardinghouse after four years of searching for his wife with his daughter. He clashes with the other members of the boardinghouse, who are also looking for something that will bring them together and give them some peace. When the residents of the boardinghouse sing and dance a juba, an African call-and-response celebration of the spirit, Loomis cannot join in. Instead he is haunted by a horrifying vision of the Middle Passage: "I done seen bones rise up on the water."
Loomis's salvation comes only later in the play after he slashes his chest with a knife and finds the strength and the power to finally stand up on his own two feet and start afresh. He has found his own song, which Wilson calls the "song of self-sufficiency." This song helps him to attain the "warrior-spirit" and combat the racist environment in which he is forced to live. Bynum Walker, a mysterious African conjure man who "binds" people together and gives them their songs, plays an important role in Loomis's resurrection and healing. According to Bynum, Loomis becomes the spiritually charged shining man that Bynum has been looking for throughout his life.
Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a compilation of Wilson's most persistent themes. Through the play Wilson shows how embracing an African heritage—via the juba and Bynum's mysterious spiritual influence—can bring individual and collective healing to members of the African diaspora and the Great Migration north. Loomis's search for identity reaches a successful conclusion only when he confronts his painful past and the legacy of slavery within the framework of a communal response. Unlike previous heroes with the "warrior-spirit," such as Levee and Troy, Loomis achieves psychic unification and communal empowerment. That Loomis is able to attain his own redemption with Bynum's help is one of Wilson's strongest, most optimistic assertions of hope and possibility.
The critics were largely positive about Wilson's third Broadway showing. Writing for The New York Times (28 March 1988), Rich argued that Joe Turner's Come and Gone is Wilson's "most profound and theatrically adventurous telling of his story to date." The play "is a mixture of the well-made naturalistic boarding house drama and mystical, non-Western theater or ritual and metaphor." Writing for Newsweek (11 April 1988), Jack Kroll stated that Joe Turner's Come and Gone is Wilson's "best play to date and a profoundly American one."
Academic critics such as Trudier Harris stress Wilson's connections to such canonical African American folklorist writers as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison. In "August Wilson's Folk Traditions," included in August Wilson: A Casebook, she argues for the significance of Wilson's use of folklore and elevates Wilson's complex use of African American mythology in depicting Loomis's transformation to mystical "shining man": "When Wilson uses secular mythology as the source of religious conversion and overwrites Christianity with African American folkways, he merges the secular and the sacred in ways that few African American authors have attempted." Similarly, Shannon emphasizes the connections between Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Morrison's Beloved (1987): both Loomis and Beloved are mediums for "thousands of tormented slaves whose stories for centuries lay submerged beneath the currents of the Atlantic." Shannon also emphasizes Wilson's theme of reconnecting with African American heritage in the tradition of Black Nationalist writers Baraka and Larry Neal.
Another Bearden painting, Piano Lesson (1983), provided the inspiration for Wilson's next play. The silkscreen painting depicts a woman looking over the shoulder of her female student seated at a large piano. The Piano Lesson won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize in 1990 before it opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in April that year and ran for 329 performances. Previous productions included a run at the Yale Repertory Theatre from 26 November through 19 December 1987. Charles S. Dutton, who had also acted in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, was highly praised for his performance in the New York production. The Piano Lesson was adapted as a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" television production, also featuring Dutton as Boy Willie.
The Piano Lesson further develops the familiar theme of overcoming the bitter legacy of slavery through a revitalized connection with an African heritage. Set in 1936 Pittsburgh in the home of the main characters' uncle, the play centers on a conflict between Boy Willie and his sister Berniece over the fate of their most cherished possession from their enslaved past—their family's piano. Its legs had been carved with African-styled figures by their great-grandfather in an act of mourning the loss of his missing wife and nine-year-old son, who had been traded away for the piano as an anniversary present for the slaveowner's wife.
As if this symbolic weight were not enough, Boy Willie and Berniece's sharecropper father was killed in retribution for later stealing the piano from James Sutter, a descendent of the original slave-owners. Sutter suspiciously drowns in his well, perhaps pushed by Boy Willie, who celebrates his death. However, Boy Willie recounts the legend of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog—the boxcar in which their father was burned along with three others— and blames them for Sutter's death. Sutter's ghost inhabits their uncle's home, giving the play supernatural overtones.
In contrast to Boy Willie, Berniece wants to keep the piano and emphasizes its priceless heirloom status. She recounts how their mother polished the piano every day for seventeen years, until her hands bled. It is a cumulative symbol of their family's tragedy—drenched in the blood of slavery, the hypocrisy of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the horrors of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. More practical-minded Boy Willie, who arrives in Pittsburgh ostensibly to sell watermelons, is interested in selling the valuable piano so that he can buy back the plantation on which his great-grandparents were enslaved.
Before either side can resolve their dispute, however, they must confront the ghosts of the past. Boy Willie must confront Sutter's ghost, which has followed the piano from the South, and Berniece must re-establish ties to her dead ancestors. Ever since the day her mother died, she has avoided playing the piano because she did not want to wake the spirits of her dead relatives. In the end, she plays a redemptive and empowering blues song on the piano that is "both a commandment and a plea"— it serves to exorcise the ghosts and to reconnect Berniece and her brother with her ancestors. Through music, in other words, the characters have accessed the power of the African heritage. Additionally the magic counterspell in the music has driven away the demons and ghosts of the white slaveowning past. Boy Willie departs for home in Mississippi, content to let Berniece keep the piano, after both characters learn a powerful individual and cultural "lesson."
A reviewer of the Yale Repertory Theater performance (Time, 30 January 1989) called The Piano Lesson "the richest yet of dramatist August Wilson" and the piano "the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wingfield's glass menagerie." Barnes, writing for the New York Post (17 April 1990), stressed the significance and power of the piano as a living symbol of the family's past and emphasized the effective confrontations in the play between the living and the dead, between the real and the supernatural. Writing for The New York Times (17 April 1990), Rich called attention to the effective use of music in the play. He concluded, "That haunting music belongs to the people who have lived it, and it has once again found miraculous voice in a play that August Wilson has given to the American stage."
A review for New York Magazine (7 May 1990), however, was largely critical of the Broadway production for having too many confusing subplots and contradictions and for the "uncompelling" use of the supernatural. The reviewer attributes the confusing and unconvincing aspects of the play mostly to its two-year period of testing in various venues before opening on Broadway. Critic Robert Brustein's scathing attack on Wilson in his review of The Piano Lesson for The New Republic (21 May 1990) marked the beginning of a bitter relationship between the playwright and Brustein, who called the play "an overwritten exercise in a conventional style" that does not have the poetry of Wilson's previous plays. Where other critics have celebrated Wilson's treatment of African American life, Brustein sees Wilson as having "limited himself to the black experience in a relatively literalistic style." He called Wilson's acclaim among white liberal audiences the result of "a cultural equivalent of affirmative action." He also criticized the use of the supernatural as a "contrived intrusion," inappropriate in a realist drama, and concluded that "Wilson is reaching a dead end in his examination of American racism."
Some academic critics took a different, more positive view of Wilson's use of the supernatural or the mystical. In "Ghosts on the Piano: August Wilson and the Representation of Black History," included in May All Your Fences Have Gates, Michael Morales argues that the mystical and the historical are closely interrelated in Wilson's plays, especially The Piano Lesson and Joe Turner's Come and Gone: "In these two plays Wilson predicates the relationship of the past to the present for black Americans on an active lineage kinship bond between the living and their ancestors." In an answer to the critical controversy over the ending of The Piano Lesson, academic critics argue that the reliance of the play on the presence of the supernatural is a valid part of Wilson's overarching dramatic project of restoring a sense of historical-cultural connection with the past for contemporary blacks.
Two Trains Running, his next play, continues Wilson's ten-play historical cycle by examining urban black culture in the tumultuous 1960s. After a run at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven from 27 March through 21 April 1990, and a year of fine tuning with the help of Richards, the play opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway on 13 April 1992, with Laurence Fishburne playing Sterling, one of the central characters. The play won Wilson his sixth Drama Critics Circle Award. He also met his third wife, Constanza Romero, who was in charge of costume design, during the production. Together they have a daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson.
Two Trains Running is set in Pittsburgh in 1969, in a restaurant across the street from a funeral home and Lutz's, a white-owned meat market. As critics mention frequently, although the play is set in the 1960s, it does not foreground the political turmoil of that decade; instead, the race riots and heightened tensions exist in the background. Their relative insignificance highlights Wilson's belief that politics changed little for blacks. Instead of change, the play focuses on the familiar theme of overcoming the destructive effects of the pervasive economic exploitation of the black community by mainstream white society and of the trauma of the past, including slavery. As Shannon notes, Wilson's later plays, including Two Trains Running, feature characters who, "Instead of assailing white America's conscience … seem preoccupied with discovering, acknowledging, and grappling with both their collective and individual pasts in order to move their lives forward."
As in Fences especially, one of the central tensions exists between the older and the younger male generations. In Two Trains Running, Memphis Lee is the self-made man who owns the restaurant in which the play is set. Like Troy Maxson in Fences, Memphis rails against the younger generation. Perhaps because of the gap between himself and the younger generation, he scoffs at the Black Power rallies celebrating Malcolm X's legacy in his neighborhood, placing little hope in the power of the younger generation to change anything because of the loss of their work ethic. At the same time, however, he believes that the only way to make an impact on the white man is with a gun.
Wilson carefully balances Memphis's indignation against the younger generation with another older character, Holloway, who makes the connection between the lack of a work ethic in the younger generation and their lack of rewarding opportunity, a systemic problem that keeps the economic inequity of slavery intact. Holloway asserts a chilling logical equation: while times have changed since slavery, the basic economic policy of plenty of work for nothing and no work for pay is still in effect. Several of the other male characters in the play invest all their time and energy in playing the numbers as a seemingly viable alternative to working at a job or investing their money. Wilson's implication is that investment for the black community and the fixed, white-controlled numbers racket are essentially the same thing, since everything is set up to favor whites.
Despite their differences over how to cope with their economic disempowerment, the characters in the play seem obsessed by money and by redressing the economic exploitations of the past. For example, one of the characters, nicknamed Hambone, repeats a single line throughout the play until his death: "I want my ham." More than nine years before, the white grocery-store owner, Lutz, agreed to pay him a ham in exchange for doing a good job painting his fence. Instead of a ham, however, all Hambone gets is the offer of a chicken. Each day until his death Hambone confronts Lutz, receiving the same frustrating answer. In a symbolic act designed to redress the inequity of the past, one of the younger characters, Sterling, a former convict in his thirties, breaks the store window and steals a ham from Lutz's store to put in Hambone's coffin. Unlike Memphis, who seems paralyzed by contradictions and his own pessimism, Sterling, as a disciple of Malcolm X, takes direct action. His act underscores Wilson's admiration for those who do something to counter pervasive racial injustice by enacting the "warrior-spirit."
Memphis dreams of returning to Jackson, Mississippi, to reclaim his farm, which he was forced to leave because of attacks by white racists in 1931. He hopes to sell his restaurant, which he bought with his numbers winnings and his disabled brother's insurance money, to the city for a good price. He plans to take one of the "two trains running" south every day from the Pittsburgh train station and buy back his farm. Memphis, like Troy Maxson, is pessimistic about the future of the black community and looks forward to leaving. Most of the stores and healthcare providers have already moved out in preparation for the city's "renovation" project. As Memphis grimly states, "Ain't nothing gonna be left but these niggers killing one another." By the end of the play, however, Memphis gets the money he wanted from the city, which is an unusually optimistic turn of events in Wilson's plays.
Two Trains Running features an offstage character—Aunt Esther—who, like Bynum in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, is the spiritual center of the play. She has the gift of prophecy, unlike the more suspect promises of the more popular, glitzy Prophet Samuel, minister of the First African Congregational Kingdom. Throughout the play different characters go to seek Aunt Esther's advice, including Memphis, who is told that he needs to take care of unfinished business—recovering his farm. Instead of boasting of the power to make people rich, as does the Prophet Samuel, the reputedly 123-year-old Aunt Esther has the "understanding" or wisdom of old age, which reinforces one of Wilson's consistent themes: that the older black generations offer empowering wisdom, experience, and spirituality. She represents the antimaterialism of true spiritual achievement, and tells several characters, including Memphis, to throw her twenty-dollar fee into the river. Aunt Esther's significance as a voice of wisdom and historical continuity cannot be overestimated; Holloway believes that she is actually 322 years old, roughly the same amount of time that Africans have lived in North America.
Critical reaction to Two Trains Running was less positive than to some of his earlier plays. Writing for the New York Post (14 April 1992), Barnes criticized the play, calling it the most diffuse play that Wilson has written. Some critics agreed with this assessment but found other aspects to praise. Chief among their criticisms was that the play lacked a strong plot and resolution, and that it was too long. Other critics, however, writing for Time (28 April 1992), and the Christian Science Monitor (27 April 1992), praised the sense of humor in the play and its lyric depiction of human suffering. Also prominent in the reviews of the play was a nearly unanimous appreciation for Wilson's use of language and for the acting, especially by Fishburne.
Academic criticism counters the criticisms in the mass media. Shannon, for example, writes that "the play's lax tempo and unconventional structure imitate the often unhurried, repetitive, and sometimes amorphous form of blues music." She compares the improvisational plotlessness of Two Trains Running to Ma Rainey's Black Bottom: both plays are "best viewed as a dramatic rendering of a blues song; form and structure are secondary to catharsis." Other critics affirm Shannon's central point: in an essay included in Three Plays, Paul C. Harrison emphasizes the oral-history quality of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and the slow accretion of tension based on a pattern of "circuitous course of parenthetical anecdotes, asides and utterances."
Wilson's next play, Seven Guitars, returns to the blues as an explicit controlling metaphor. The play ran first in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre from 21 January to 25 February 1995 before it opened on Broadway on 28 March 1996 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Wilson completed it after taking a three-year break from writing; the changes in his life during this period included his divorce from his second wife, his plans to marry Romero, and his success in giving up a heavy smoking habit.
Seven Guitars opens during a hot and humid summer in the familiar Pittsburgh Hill District in 1948. The dirt backyard set is a gathering place for the characters who occupy the apartments above and below the yard to play whist, sing the blues, dance, socialize, argue, and listen to the radio accounts of the latest Joe Louis victory over his white opponents. Despite the historical context of the country's economic boom after World War II, the Pittsburgh black community, made up largely of Southerners looking for greater economic opportunity in the North, seems completely isolated from the rest of the country and certainly does not share in its economic gains. Instead, as in many of Wilson's plays, the characters in Seven Guitars are fixated on money and on attaining some kind of financial retribution for past wrongs.
Seven Guitars begins and ends with musician Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton's funeral. The play creates some suspense by not answering the question of who murdered him until the final scene. The mystic and at times delusional character King Hedley dreams that someday King Buddy Bolden, a legendary blues player for whom Hedley is named, would appear and return to him his father's money. He plans to take this money, return south, and buy a plantation, like Memphis in Two Trains Running. When Hedley sees Floyd in the yard with $1,200 he had stolen during a robbery from the loan offices of Metro Finance, he feels his dream has come true and kills Floyd for refusing to hand over the money. Like Levee in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Herald Loomis in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Hedley embodies the "warrior-spirit." He refuses to acquiesce to white economic disenfranchisement and wants to be famous someday. Near the end of the play he calls himself a "warrior" and a "hurricane," and warns that the "black man is not a dog!" Hedley sees himself cast in a biblical drama against the Satanic whites, and he hopes to father a son who will be the new black messiah born to conquer evil. Indicative of Wilson's complex sense of irony and realism, however, is the final act: instead of realizing his dreams, Hedley kills one of his friends, and the dollar bills that he had hoped would be his ticket to a new life instead "fall to the ground like ashes" from his hands in the closing scene, similar to the tragic denouement of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.
One of Wilson's most pessimistic plays, Seven Guitars shows the black man caught in the inexorable web of white economic oppression that exploits the black artist and fails to see his music as anything more than a means to an economic end. As in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the musicians who occupy this play have been taken advantage of and cheated by the white-controlled music industry. Despite the fact that Floyd has a hit song, ironically called "That's All Right," he is still dependent on a white agent who eventually cheats him out of his advance money (and is convicted also of insurance fraud), thereby making it impossible for Floyd to get his guitar out of hock and return to Chicago. Like all the characters in the play, Floyd is tired of having nothing and decides to "take a chance" by robbing the loan offices. With the money he is finally able to provide a headstone for his beloved mother and, before he is killed, he performs in a night of singing and fun at the local nightclub, the "Blue Goose."
Several times in the play Floyd reminisces fondly about his mother, and his music reflects her love for gospel singing. In Wilson's "A Note from the Playwright," which precedes the play Wilson admits that this play is an homage to his mother's life, her cooking, her faith, and her superstitions. These aspects come alive as well in the female characters, who spend time preparing food and talking about men and the difficulties of love. The play begins and ends with one of the women, Vera, with whom Floyd was involved, claiming to have seen angels come to take Floyd to heaven.
Critical reaction to Seven Guitars was mixed. Writing for the New York Post (29 March 1996), Barnes praised the sad anger and the poetry of the play but criticized the lack of an effective climax. The reviewer for The New York Times (29 March 1996) also found fault with the ending but raved about the rest of the play and its spiritual power. Several other critics were impressed by the wisdom in the play, Wilson's use of language, the acting, and the homage to the blues spirit despite the less effective second act, which could have been improved.
Shortly after Seven Guitars opened, Wilson gave the keynote address to the Theatre Communications Group National Conference on 26 June 1996. This address, titled "The Ground on Which I Stand" and published in American Theatre in September 1996, can be read as the culminating manifesto of his personal politics, his aesthetics, and his vision for the future. In the address he differentiates between two traditions, the white and the black. While he recognizes his debt to great white dramatists, including William Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill, the ground on which he stands as an artist is firmly in the black tradition, dating back to the spiritually empowering and functional art practiced not within the white slaveowner's home for white consumption, but within the slave quarters for an exclusively black audience. This art was designed to nurture the spirit, to celebrate black life, and to pass on strategies for survival in a hostile and antagonistic environment. Strategies for maintaining control over black cultural capital include rejecting colorblind casting (the practice of placing black actors in "white" plays or vice versa, such as an all-white cast of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun) as cultural appropriation. Wilson also argues for increasing the number of black regional theaters. Out of the sixty-six theaters in the League of Resident Theaters (LORT), Wilson claims, only one is dedicated to black drama. Wilson challenges theater managers to increase the number of regional black theaters and to make theater more accessible to the masses.
Wilson goes on to reject the label of being a separatist, since he believes that whites and blacks can meet on a jointly constructed "common ground" of the theater in pursuing dramatic excellence, as long as that common ground allows blacks to explore and celebrate their cultural distinctiveness. He argues that in addition to the formalist commonalities of theater, which include plot and characterization, there are such human universals as love, honor, duty, and betrayal that all audiences can appreciate, regardless of race. Theater was developed by Aristotle and other Greek, European, and Euro-American playwrights; however, Wilson avers, "We embrace the values of that theatre but reserve the right to amend, to explore, to add our African consciousness and our African aesthetic to the art we produce." Wilson ends with an appeal to work together to create a common ground and to use the universal truth-telling power of the theater to improve all lives across the lines of culture and color.
Wilson's keynote address also includes attacks on the "cultural imperialist" critics who, like Brustein, are antagonistic to a diversified theater because they see a lowering of aesthetic standards. Wilson counters by arguing that the new voices in the theater represent a raising of the standards and levels of excellence in the theater.
Wilson's address was met with a veritable firestorm of print activity, including counterattacks by Brustein. In the next issue of American Theatre Brustein responded to Wilson's attacks with an article titled "Subsidized Separatism," to which Wilson also replied in the same issue. In the article, Brustein seeks to defend himself and to explore "troubling general issues" raised in Wilson's speech, which he calls a "rambling jeremiad." Brustein interprets Wilson's speech as a call for separatist theater and reads Wilson's comments about artistic universals and common ground as "boilerplate rhetoric," afterthought, and pretense. He repeats his objections to Wilson's plays, made clear especially in his review of The Piano Lesson, and adds a further complaint that "Wilson has fallen into a monotonous tone of victimization which happens to be the leitmotif of his TCG speech." Brustein asserts that Wilson is part of the "rabid identity politics and poisonous racial consciousness that have been infecting our country in recent years."
In his response following Brustein's article, Wilson defends himself against what he calls Brustein's misinterpretations of his speech and repeats his points about the cross-cultural commonalities inherent in great art. At the end of his response he turns around Brustein's scolding that he has left Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. out of his list of black American heroes by arguing that Brustein is the one who denies the possibility of a theater capable of absorbing or assimilating different traditions and cultural values.
The dramatic and well-publicized feud between Wilson and Brustein reached its peak during a 27 January 1997 debate at New York City Town Hall, moderated by Anna Deavere Smith and titled "On Cultural Power." In a review of the two-and-a-half-hour debate for American Theatre, Stephen Nunns emphasizes the evening as a flashy media spectacle. Accompanying photographs depict "a diverse and celebrity-studded audience." Nunns writes that both men began by repeating their earlier positions, with Brustein attacking multiculturalism as being without intellectual content and Wilson again emphasizing the need for more black regional theaters and his activist position that art has the power to transform society and individuals. While the two debaters were relatively civil, the 1,500-member audience had to be reprimanded several times by Smith for heckling the speakers.
Critical reaction to the debate was mixed. In Newsweek (10 February 1997) Kroll emphasized the significance of their debate and the need to explore issues of multiculturalism and cultural synthesis as the country becomes more diverse. An editorial in the Boston Globe (9 February 1997) praised the intelligence and depth of the evening. However, several critics noted that the event was not too enlightening because neither man seemed able to listen to the other or to come to any kind of reconciliation. Rich wrote in an article for The New York Times (1 February 1997) that both men ignored the larger crisis that serious theater is virtually dead: "Both men narcissistically fiddle (and bicker) while the world of serious culture they share burns." And a writer for the Village Voice (February 1997) found the evening disappointing because both men are stuck in "a monolithic modernism. Both hold faith in a capital-T Truth out there waiting to be uncovered."
In a 3 February 1997 article in The New Yorker, "The Chitlin Circuit," eminent literary and social critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. responded at length to Wilson's keynote address but mentioned the debate only in passing. While Gates calls Wilson the "dean of American dramatists" and "the most celebrated American playwright now writing and … certainly the most accomplished black playwright in this nation's history," Gates's article is largely critical of Wilson. Gates reviews the controversies around Wilson's "disturbing polemic," points out that many black actors disagree with Wilson's condemnation of colorblind casting, and quotes Baraka's support for actors crossing color lines to get parts. Gates also attacks Wilson's "divided rhetoric" in calling for a self-determining black theater and government subsidies at the same time.
As if to answer the critiques of Gates and others, Wilson has become quite active in the cause of developing and nurturing serious black theater. He was featured at the opening of the foundation-subsidized new vehicle for black theater, The African Grove Institute for the Arts in partnership with the National Black Arts Festival. According to its brochure, the African Grove Institute, which is based at Dartmouth College, is "dedicated to the advancement and preservation of black Theater as an agent for social and economic change." Its initial event, which coincided with the National Black Theatre Summit II, was held in Atlanta in July 1998. The opening featured a performance of Jitney and included a closing conference session titled "A Vision for the New Millenium."
Not surprisingly, given Wilson's historically minded plays, Wilson's vision for the future concerns the past. He wants to see a new black community created in the South that emulates the closely knit, more economically self-sufficient black communities of the 1940s—such as the Hill—that Wilson knew and loved as a child and young adult. Wilson's play King Hedley II had its premiere in Pittsburgh in December 1999 and opened in Seattle on 13 March 2000. The main character in King Hedley II, the eighth play in Wilson's historical cycle, is an ex-con trying to rebuild his life in 1990s Pittsburgh. As part of his retrospective vision, the play depicts the decline of the black family and the prevalence of violence and guns in contemporary inner-city neighborhoods. While some critics may call this impulse to reject the present in favor of the past "sentimental separatism" or romantic illusion, Wilson sees nothing negative in revivifying a supportive separate black community or in attempting to reverse the mistake of leaving the South for a dream that did not come true. He also continues to support the idea of a diversified American theater, built on the common, cross-cultural ground of dramatic form.
Source: Jonathan Little, "August Wilson," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 228, Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Second Series, edited by Christopher J. Wheatley, The Gale Group, 2000, pp. 289-302.
In the following essay, Wolfe declares that Two Trains Running gives a faithful depiction ofthe decade-long progress, and its "effects," on black Americans. He also comments on Wilson's frequent use of the theme of "transience."
Set in 1969, Two Trains Running provides a gritty, unflinching look at the effects of a decade of great progress for black America. The progress covered many areas. The year 1962 saw the election of the first black man, Jackie Robinson, to baseball's Hall of Fame and, thanks to the efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, new highs in black voter registration in the deep South. Two years later, Dr. Martin Luther King won the Nobel Peace Prize and, a year after that, more than 3,000 people marched the 54 miles between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. The list of breakthroughs continues. Justice Thurgood Marshall became the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967, and 1968 brought the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But many would feel let down by this landmark bill. The benefits of hindsight explains why. The failure of the act to create more equality and justice for blacks could have been predicted from the ugliness that preceded it. The murders of Malcolm X in 1965 and of Dr. King in 1968 belong in the same continuum as the slaying of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 and the deaths caused by riots in Watts in 1965 and Detroit in 1967.
This violence erupted for a reason. Despite the Black Power activism and the progress in civil rights legislation since 1962, blacks in America were still oppressed. Their future looked bleak. In the air were signs of the coming of cities that would be too fast, too crowded, and too smart to be easily endured by the black underclass, cities also marred by growing numbers of glue sniffers, heroin addicts, and hookers living in condemned buildings without electricity or running water. Unfolding in a transitional era, Two Trains Running (1992) describes urban blacks caught in the wash of social change. It depicts the clash of old and new energies— the relative ease of an old order faced by the anarchy of a new social agenda that includes the militant politics of the Nation of Islam. The ordeals of both the Middle Passage and the Great Migration have revived in the minds of Wilson's people. For another population displacement is at hand; city planners are razing Pittsburgh's Hill for an urban redevelopment plan without first providing for the residents' relocation. There are other forebodings. Besides flattening a friendly, vibrant community that has meant home to many people, the proposed renewal scheme will create new, uglier slums that will aggravate Pittsburgh's present ghettoization— the division of the city's population by color and income. A larger public works program will replace neighborhood continuity with "projects," big low-income, high-risk public housing. Symbolizing both the doomed organic community and the warm socializing buzz of the street is Memphis Lee's homestyle restaurant, the setting for Wilson's 1992 play. Like the jitney station in Wilson's unpublished 1982 Jitney, Lee's has been targeted for demolition by the city. Across the street from it stand a funeral home and a meat market, suggesting rapacity and even cannibalism. This looming devastation rivets us because the restaurant, it soon becomes clear, is more than a place of business. It's also a makeshift community center and social club. People drop in at all hours for coffee and conversation. Neighborly and charitable, these denizens of Lee's take up a collection to bail a local man out of jail so he can attend his wife's funeral.
Yet Wilson is too ironic and socially aware to ride the flow of sentiment induced by the death of Bubba Boy's wife. Capable of being tender and tough minded at the same time, he deliberately sited Trains in a climate of "urban decay" (McDonough, 153). The local supermarket, the five-and-ten, two drugstores, and the local doctor and dentist, it comes out early, have all left the Hill or gone out of business. "Ain't nothing gonna be left but these niggers killing one another", says Memphis, forecasting the inevitable upshot of this erosion of amenities and services. Nor can he stop the slide. Once a thriving business, his diner now has a small clientele. At the time of the first act, its larder consists only of a little coffee, some beans, frozen hamburger, and a box of rice. Memphis goes shopping during the course of the action for limited quantities of chicken, meat loaf, and pie he'd have stocked— and sold—in abundance during the diner's earlier, palmier days.
On the subject of Memphis and his surviving clientele, Carla J. McDonough says, "a sense of detachment, decay, and dissolution pervades their talk. These men are separated from their families and are left very little in the way of companionship." Marginalized and wounded they have become. West the mortician is the only local whose business has been thriving. He can forget the days when it took two weeks to get a broken toilet fixed. So lucrative is his mortuary that he no longer replaces broken window panes with wooden boards; his livery includes seven Cadillacs; looking to add to his millions, he has been buying up much of the real estate on the Hill so he can sell it back to the city at a profit before it's razed. Memphis has also known prosperity, if not recently. Like West, he's a property-owning driver of a Cadillac. But the devastation that has enriched West—including that caused by black-on-black crime—is threatening him. This wise investor sees the forced sale of the building he has divided into a diner and rental apartments taking away from him both a steady source of cash and a means of self-validation.
He and his cronies lead half lives, a sad truth suggested by their mostly being known by one name. Holloway has no woman, and West is a widower (widowers outnumber widows in Wilson). Hambone, Wolf, and Bubba Boy (another widower) are known only by their nicknames. Memphis Lee, whose first name is probably also a nickname, has a wife he rarely sees. Loneliness also frets the two characters who develop the play's love interest. By default, the orphan-turned-bank-robber Sterling Johnson took the last name of an adoptive family he no longer sees. His putative mate, Clarissa Thomas, is always called Risa, denoting a loss of clarity or brightness in her life. The others share her plight. Gloom has gripped the doomed neighborhood with its shards of broken glass, thriving mortuary, and Bubba Boy's newly dead wife. Wilson told Mark William Rocha in a 1992 interview that his intention in Two Trains Running was to show "that by 1969 nothing … changed for the black man." In 1969, the efforts of the deceased Malcolm X and Dr. King, like the high-profile 1968 Civil Rights Act, did look futile. But futility hasn't swallowed all, thanks to the synergy created by the play's fusion of vision and voice. Supported by dialogue sinewy, charged, and sometimes hilarious, the ambiguity that permeates Wilson's beliefs about social progress for blacks provokes more debate than grief.
Life on the Edge
By all reasonable standards, the people in Trains qualify as losers—depressing to think about and painful to watch. That they fuse as a winning, engaging group whose doings fascinate us counts as a small miracle. This feat hinges in part on the deft and always entertaining techniques Wilson uses to drive a grim story. In part it hinges on Wilson's belief in the inadequacy of reason to explain life's mysteries. This belief, if unoriginal, is both hard won and moving. Wilson is the opposite of an ideologue. He hates ideologies and dogmas. To him, they're narrow and partisan, and they do great harm. They also make politicians look clumsy and stupid at times when they need flexibility and breadth of outlook. This truth explains a great deal in Trains. A minute into the play a character says, "The NAACP got all kinds of lawyers. It don't do nobody no good." Wilson would probably approve this verdict. He's as hostile to collective solutions as was Ellison in Invisible Man. Pereira sees him directing that hostility toward recent attempts by black activists to improve their people's chances for justice and equality. The death of Wilson's Prophet Samuel, Pereira claims, coming soon after those of Malcolm X and Dr. King, signals the failure of the civil rights movement in the United States. The ballyhoo created by both Prophet Samuel's funeral and the monster rally for Malcolm X supports Pereira's claim.
Prophet Samuel confirms Wilson's genius for driving a plot with a character who never shows his face to the audience. That face is seen off-stage, though mostly by the undertaker West, since the prophet died just before opening curtain. But others have been thronging not only to see that face but also to touch it. Prophet Samuel had enjoyed roaring success preaching the doctrine of freedom and dignity through the acquisition of wealth. Though this dovetailing of material and spiritual blessings squares with mainstream Yankee Protestantism, Wilson rejects it with the same scorn he aims at the Black Power movement. Signs that Prophet Samuel represents a false direction include his sleazy background. Like Rinehart in Invisible Man, he's a huckster of religion with a criminal past who bleeds his own people. His death, which might have been caused by poison, suggests the same spiritual paralysis called forth by the dead priest in James Joyce's "The Sisters," from Dubliners. Sisters are what Prophet Samuel's devotees might have called themselves, but the bonds he had with them were rumored to have been sexual. In fact, the poison that may have killed him would have been fed to him by a jealous female retainer.
Though based on hearsay, this possibility stays alive. For poison could have driven the disorder that follows his death: a fight caused by someone who tries to crash the line of mourners waiting to pay their last respects, an opportunist who would charge admission to see the corpse, and an attempted late-night burglary of the funeral parlor where the corpse was laid out all imply a poisoning of the social order Prophet Samuel had allegedly set out to redeem. He always walked with corruption and fraud. Shannon has discussed the carnival atmosphere he liked surrounding himself with both to amuse his followers and to distract them from his ignorance of the living God: "Even after his death, Prophet Samuel is able to attract hordes of people—the hopeless, the desperate, or simply the curious. While alive, he enjoyed a popular ministry based upon a mixture of showbiz antics, con artistry, and an immodest display of religiosity: he wore robes, went shoeless, and with much fanfare, baptized converts in a nearby river."
As is shown by the disruptions following Prophet Samuel's death, such extravaganza inhibits both social and spiritual uplift. Wilson, duly warned, resists imposing either an arbitrary aesthetic order or a political agenda on his materials. Reflecting the disarray he sees around him, his theater addresses the challenge of maintaining a belief that defies reason. Warrior spirits like Troy Maxson and Boy Willie Charles break so many rules making this provocative leap of faith that they foil themselves. The issue revives in Trains, a work that posits a new ontology with its fusions of logic and nonsense and of the outlandish and the factual. Defying huge odds, the number 621 hits for the second time within a week. Sterling's number will also win but with mixed results, since it's cut in half, paying only 300 to 1 rather than the customary 600 to 1. Reason and common sense come under question as early as midway through the first scene when, moments after claiming that she has been cleaning a chicken, Risa admits that the diner is out of chicken. Undeterred, her boss, Memphis, will soon tell her to fry the nonexistent chicken, to which she replies that she's already frying it.
Obviously, the world of Wilson's people regulates itself by a mystique far removed from Western pragmatism. Embodying this mystique is a 322-year-old woman named Aunt Ester, who lives at 1839 Wylie, just minutes away from Memphis's diner, the Wylie Avenue address of which is 1621. But the August Wilson of Trains varies his usual practice of siting salvation close to the miseenscène. Though suggesting sexual passion, the red door of Aunt Ester's apartment leads to inner peace and self-acceptance. But these blessings aren't open to all. She speaks in riddles, and, like that of Bynum in Joe Turner, her wisdom is more of a challenge than a quick fix. She makes Sterling come to her three times before admitting him. Her standards are high. She will rid people like Sterling of their bad energy, but anyone who approaches her with selfish motives will walk away empty-handed. In particular, she refuses to help those who want her to show them how to get rich. Indicative of the times they're living in, five characters in the play (four speaking parts and Prophet Samuel) ask her help. What she says to them reaches us only in rough outline, Wilson deliberately avoiding telling all. As he should; one of the privileges of being alive consists of moving forward in the dark. Were all life's riddles and mysteries disclosed to us, faith would be drained of meaning, and the afterlife would lack purpose. Thus Risa, a follower of the charlatan Prophet Samuel and a no-show at Aunt Ester's, gives Sterling his winning number, 781, but withholds its import from him. Defying reason, she also claims that the deranged Hambone has more sense than any of the other patrons of the diner.
Perhaps insight into the play's larger meaning lies in its title. Memphis says that every day two trains run back to his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. He hopes that he'll soon board one to reclaim the farm that was stolen from him in 1931. He has judged his prospects well. Any train is a blind, amoral force, like money, a subject the characters argue about often. Memphis could hop on either of the two trains that leave daily from Pittsburgh. The sense of mission impelling him will endow the morally neutral train he takes with value; the moral drama must come from him if it's to come at all. Observing unity of place, Wilson ends the play before Memphis's long-awaited train ride to Jackson. But he does talk about the play's title in terms applicable to Memphis. His words appear both on the back cover of the 1993 Plume paperback reprint of the play and in the playbill (p. 34) of the 1992 Broadway production at the Walter Kerr Theater: "There are always and only two trains running. There is life and there is death. Each of us rides them both. To live life with dignity, to celebrate and accept responsibility for your presence in the world is all that can be asked of anyone."
Dignity and personal responsibility are virtues that members of an underclass, particularly a transient one, can rarely afford to cultivate. The frequency in the canon of both trains and the blues, Wilson's main source of artistic inspiration, calls forth the idea of transience, specifically the Great Migration and the many family breakups it caused. Romare Bearden, the black American painter and collagist whose work inspired both Joe Turner and The Piano Lesson, referred to trains more gently when he said in 1977, "Negroes lived near the tracks, worked on the railroads, and trains carried them North during the migration." Wilson prefers the darker tones. Doaker, who spent 27 years working on the railroad, says in Piano Lesson about train passengers, "They leaving cause they can't get satisfied." To him, trains symbolize failure to cope. Rather than staying home and trying to solve their problems, the fainthearted think that riding a train to a new town will make them go away.
They're wrong. Rather than staying behind in Mississippi, Sutter's ghost spent the three weeks before the opening curtain preparing for Boy Willie's arrival in Pittsburgh. Moreover, a train will sooner or later carry Boy Willie back to the Mississippi town where his journey began. Both the sound made by an approaching train at the end of the play and Boy Willie's last question "Hey, Doaker, what time the train leave?" reinstate the realities that rule most of Wilson's people—anxiety and the illusion of freedom.
A character whose financial and emotional distress converts to physical disquiet in Trains is Sterling. Recalling Wilson's other jobless young men just out of jail, such as Booster in Jitney and Lymon in Piano Lesson, Sterling is afraid that his new freedom offers no promise of a happy, productive life. So haunted is he by the fear of returning to jail that at times he seems to be inviting arrest. Self-preservation has never been his forte. Ten minutes after he robbed a bank, he was spending the stolen money. Yet, as Shannon says, he's no more of a monster than was the boyishly endearing Lymon: "Sterling is a strangely off-beat character. Far from presenting the hard-core image one might expect, he appears painfully naive—almost childlike." The good luck he claims to have been born with has deserted him. Unable to find work, he tries in vain to sell his watch. The job he held after his release from prison lasted only a week, at which time he was laid off. Or so he says; according to Memphis, Sterling quit. Holloway, the play's griot figure, agrees; if Sterling wanted to work, he'd have a job, Holloway believes. Holloway and Memphis could be right. It's possible that Sterling's youthful charm stems from his immaturity. One of the most intriguing questions posed by Trains is whether Sterling (the Laurence Fishburne role in the 1992 Walter Kerr Theater production) can ever become a contented, peaceable member of society.
Alas, most of the evidence is negative. Lacking a sense of process, the boyish Sterling wants the rewards of labor without the toil: he steals some flowers from a memorial to give Risa because "it's silly to buy flowers" ; he also steals a five-gallon can full of gasoline. And it may also have been Sterling who broke West's window while trying to burglarize the mortuary after dark (he'll break a storefront window later in the play). Spending five years in prison didn't wipe out his criminal streak. Giving up his job search quickly, he buys a handgun, which he believes will help him access the material goods he wants but lacks the patience to work for. Holloway and Memphis both judge well when they envision him back in jail within weeks. Judging from his recklessness, they've skewed their timetables in his favor.
The person he'd sadden most by returning to prison is Risa. Like Lymon of Piano Lesson, he charms women rather than trying to over-power them. Risa is moved by his gentleness. He rejects her offer of beans in act 1, scene 1, explaining that he has been eating beans for the past five years. But a couple of days later, he gladly eats the beans she serves him, even asking for a second bowl. He has touched Risa. Within minutes, she twice uses the phrase "the right person" while discussing dancing partners, implying that she might welcome his attentions. But what kind of future would these attentions foster? Though uneducated, Risa is both sharp and caring. Other characters have misread this beguiling combination. Memphis miscues when he calls her "a mixed-up personality", and the numbers runner Wolf falls just as wide of the mark with his reductive summary, "all she need is a man." Risa defies definitions and formulas. Although constantly rebuked by Memphis, she's confident she won't be fired. She and Memphis both know that the diner is more than just a business establishment. To maintain its status as a surrogate home, it needs the female presence she gives it. Thus, without admitting it, Memphis prizes her kindness and warmth. What's more, the success he attains could well come from the wisdom he exercises by emulating her rarest quality—a fierce independence.
Like the others in the play, Risa is a lonely person awaiting redemption through love. But she wants love on her own strict terms, and it can only be shared with "the right person." Wilson fills in the background to the formation of these requirements. Some time before the play's present-tense action, perhaps as long as six years ago, she slashed her legs. Her scars depict her protest to being classified sexually or appraised as a possible bedmate. In the interest of building a long-term bond, she wants to turn the attention of any would-be male admirer to her inner self. She doesn't regret the 15 scars on her legs. To her, they still express a wish to be appreciated in her totality. There's much in her to appreciate. She speaks gently to Hambone, gives him a coat to wear, and feeds him whenever he comes into the diner. Though a follower of the Prophet Samuel, she'll attend neither his funeral nor the big rally for Malcolm X. She doesn't need the support of crowds to shore up her beliefs. Her values are personal, not collective, and she rates any leader's example over his mortal remains. (She will skip Hambone's funeral, too.)
Like everybody else, she knows, too, that love on one's own terms misses love. Thus she'll have to relax her agenda, fine as it is. Without protesting, she hears both Wolf and Sterling call her "baby." Protests wouldn't help her, anyway. She wants to share a special bond with a man she hopes might be Sterling. But she sees with a sinking heart that Sterling's sexual interest in her has put him on a par with all the other men who have courted her for the past six years; "You just want what everybody else want", she tells him. She wasn't expecting the reply she gets from him. By slashing her legs, he says, she violated nature. What's natural, he continues, is for a man to notice the charms of a pretty woman and then take steps to enjoy them. Instead of marring her legs, she should have simply used them to walk away from any man whose advances she found unwelcome.
Whether this argument convinces her is not clear. More obvious is her inability to fight the attraction she feels for him. Her reason tells her to resist him: "You ain't got no job. You going back to the penitentiary. I don't want to be tied up with nobody I got to be worrying is they gonna rob another bank or something." Her message is clear. She's doomed if she builds her life around an ex-con who doesn't know right from wrong. But within minutes of explaining to Sterling his unfitness as a mate, she's dancing with him and then kissing him. Her instincts have defeated her judgment. Wilson supplies the foreshadowing to show that Sterling has been wearing down her judgment longer than she suspects. Just as she violated her principles by accepting his bouquet of stolen flowers, so will she later accept him as a lover.
This cautious, self-protective woman's worst nightmare threatens to burst into reality. As has been seen, Sterling and the job that was waiting for him after he served his jail sentence parted company after a week. Nor has he learned from this setback. When told that he lacks the education to get "one of them white folks' jobs making eight or nine thousand dollars a year," he replies in terms redolent of Troy Maxson or Boy Willie: "I can do anything the white man can do. If the truth be told … most things I can do better." This arrogance can only land him back in jail. Within moments of voicing it, he starts shopping for a handgun. And not only is the handgun he buys illegal; it's also one he had already owned and gotten rid of because it malfunctioned. Spending five years in prison hasn't improved his judgment. Later, he takes the gun to the racketeer who halved the payout for the number that hit on the day Sterling bet on it. The four or five gorillas, or bodyguards, surrounding Mr. Albert show Sterling that his unannounced visit to the crime boss was a bad mistake. Wisely, he didn't start brandishing his gun in Albert's stronghold. He's probably as ready for an audience with Aunt Ester as he'll ever be.
Rocha says of this ancient conjuress whom death seems to have forgotten, "Aunt Ester is to be taken as the original African American, as old as the black experience in America" (Nadel, 128). Regardless of her exact age (three figures are mooted, ranging from 300 to 349), it approximates the length of time that Africans have been living in North America. The matriarch of the Charles family of Sunflower County, Mississippi, in Piano Lesson has the name Mama Ester. Perhaps the two like-named women embody the same ancestral wisdom. Holloway's claim regarding Aunt Ester, "She ain't gonna die, I can guarantee you that", besides reflecting a Borgesian acceptance of the bizarre, puts her beyond human processes. Her exemption from the categories that define the rest of us empowers her to boost Sterling's spirits. Before meeting her, Sterling believed that the world was about to end. Afterwards, he determines to marry Risa. Aunt Ester vitalizes him by advising him to be the best person he can, using the qualities given him. These qualities, she believes, will suffice him. If he stays within himself and cultivates what he finds there, he'll prosper. She closes their session with her usual mandate—that he throw $20 into the Monongahela River.
The session helps him, perhaps most of all because he obeys her mandate. Soon after returning to the diner, he sings. Then he and Risa dance and kiss to the accompaniment of an Aretha Franklin tune coming from the diner's recently repaired jukebox. Music has again promoted uplift and cheer in a Wilson playscript. But how long will its happy sway last? The next morning, Sterling robs a local store, reopening a path for himself to the jail where he just served time. He no longer regrets having been born. He'll even help further the continuance of the world he thought was about to end by having the children he had earlier forsworn. In fact, he may have fathered one in the hours that lapsed between the torrid kiss he shared with Risa at the end of act 2, scene 4, and the opening of the play's final scene the next morning.
But the criminal streak he discloses several times during the action implies that Risa will have to raise any offspring she has with Sterling alone. Having gone six years without sex, this paradigm of restraint and integrity finally lowers her guard for an amoral adolescent. His not being a Black Power activist has made him an anomaly among his peers. What brings this 30-year-old into the mainstream is his lawlessness. The numbers runner Wolf's comment, "every nigger you see done been to jail one time or another", applies more strictly to Sterling than to anyone else in the play. Unfortunately, the person who stands to suffer the most from its recoil action is Risa. In a truth borne out by Rose in Fences and Berniece in Piano Lesson, the women in Wilson's plays often suffer the most for the misdeeds of their men.
Source: Peter Wolfe, "Forever under Attack," in August Wilson, Twayne Publishers, 1999, pp. 110-20.
Henry, William A., III, "Luncheonette Tone Poem," in Time, Vol. 139, No. 17, April 27, 1992, p. 66.
King, Robert L., "Recent Drama," in Massachusetts Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring 1991, http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=18&hid=d97a671 (accessed August 26, 2006).
Kramer, Mimi, "The Theatre: Unmanned," in The New Yorker, Vol. 68, No. 10, April 27, 1992, p. 84.
Shannon, Sandra G., The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, Howard University Press, 1995, pp. 166, 167.
Wilson, August Two Trains Running, Plume, 1993.
Bogumil, Mary L., Understanding August Wilson, University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Bogumil's useful and accessible overview of Wilson's career and dramatic output is directed towards students as well as nonacademic readers. It provides a biographical outline of Wilson and his place in African American drama and a discussion of each major play through Seven Guitars.
Elkins, Marilyn, August Wilson: A Casebook, Garland Publishing, 2000.
This collection of essays by leading scholars of twentieth-century African American theater includes a broad overview of Wilson's politics and their relation to his plays. It also contains two interviews, one with Wilson's longtime collaborator and mentor, Lloyd Richards, and one with Wilson himself.
Menson-Furr, Ladrica, "Booker T. Washington, August Wilson, and the Shadows in the Garden," in Mosaic, Vol. 38, No. 4, December 2005, pp. 175-91.
Menson-Furr's sophisticated article places Wilson against a broad historical backdrop, analyzing his place in twentieth-century African American history alongside major leaders who worked towards the advancement of black people.
Nadel, Alan, ed., May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, University of Iowa Press, 1994.
The critical essays collected in this volume represent an important achievement, since they include the viewpoints of all of the prominent early scholars of Wilson's work. Each major play through Two Trains Running is considered in detail.