August Wilson | Critical Essay by Lisa Wilde

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of August Wilson.
This section contains 1,124 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lisa Wilde

Critical Essay by Lisa Wilde

SOURCE: "Reclaiming the Past: Narrative and Memory in August Wilson's Two Trains Running," in Theater, Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 73-4.

In the following essay, Wilde studies how Wilson gives expression to the memories of African Americans in Two Trains Running.

"All I do is try to live in the world but the world done gone crazy. I'm sorry I was ever born into it"—Sterling

May, 1969. The corner of Fullerton and Wylie Street in Pittsburgh. A small restaurant, long forgotten by the general crowds and now being readied for demolition. Outside, the world moved convulsively towards the future. But within the walls of the restaurant, the regulars spin webs of refuge: they spend hours philosophizing, telling stories, debating politics, competing to prove each other wrong. In their profuse yet precise recombinations of image and phrase, they rebuild the past.

In his newest play, Two Trains Running, August Wilson summons up the people and circumstances of this world from his own memory, reclaiming stories from the obscurity into which so much of the oral storytelling tradition has passed. The audience enters into the intimacy of the routine of these characters—stopping by for their morning coffee, checking on the numbers, commenting on the events on the street—just as Sterling Johnson, newly released from prison, breaks into the closed circle of the restaurant and provokes new performances of the stories and debates shared by Memphis and Holloway.

Both of these older men remain distrustful of the sound and fury surrounding the civil rights movement. Memphis, the restaurant's owner, recalls that he's seen movements and demonstrations over and over again that haven't led to reforms, haven't changed anything: "Soon as they finish with one rally they start planning for the next. They forget about what goes in between. You rally to spur you into action…. I want to see if it last three years." All these attempts by black men to gain justice and equality are almost predoomed to end in martyrdom. They are fighting both fate as determined by the white man and the uselessness of trying to play by rules not written for them. Their struggle goes back beyond this specific crisis and movement; it extends back through centuries of suffering which can only be expiated by reclaiming that past. Memphis has fled the destruction of his farm in Jackson, Mississippi to make a new life in Pittsburgh. The possibility of a new loss forces him to narrate and confront that original dispossession.

The insistent rhythm of time and mortality pulses through the play. The restaurant is across the street from Lutz's Meat Market and West's Funeral Home—the characters travel between these three primitive sites of slaughter, consumption and decay. People speculate about the last days of the world. The block the restaurant is on is scheduled to be levelled. West, the undertaker, goes about the ancient rituals of preparing the dead for the afterlife. He is a modern high priest officiating over the ceremonies of grief and valediction. Yet an impulse towards action emerges out of this desolation. Risa, Holloway, Sterling and Memphis try to find their own ways to envisage a future through consulting prophets and oracles, playing with chance. Wolf, the numbers runner, offers new lives and different endings for the price of a ticket.

Playing the numbers is a way to try to control fate and get enough money to get ahead. There is no logic to the world: getting ahead happens only through a lucky number or a sudden contract. Working, particularly working according to standards imposed by white America, yields up only a slight variant on slavery. The real battle is revealed to be one not of language or attitude but of economics. Wilson tells stories of people inadequately recompensed for the work they've done, legal clauses written so a property owner can be bought out for a fraction of the price he paid, even lottery winnings that are cut in half. The only way to recover what has been lost or stolen is by following the dominant culture's tactics: robbery, burning buildings for insurance, carrying guns to assert power. But these people are arrested and imprisoned for actions that in the marketplace would be considered shrewd business. Wilson's characters are not innocent: they have already tried to make their lives work as the world dictates and lost. Their need to reclaim what has been taken from them, either in actual or symbolic terms—Herald Loomis' lost wife in Joe Turner's Come and Gone, the piano bought with a father's blood in The Piano Lesson, Memphis' farm—becomes the truest form of revolution and affirmation.

In each of Wilson's plays, this liberating moment comes through communicating with the supernatural or occult mysteries. Troy Maxson in Fences wrestles with Death and ultimately loses; his brother Gabriel sends him off to the hereafter with a blast of sound and an outpouring of light. Joe Turner's Bynum helps Loomis discover his hidden song through a ritual purging. Boy Willie must wrestle with Sutler's ghost as his sister Berneice exorcises the suffering from the piano by touching it in The Piano Lesson. In Two Trains Running, travelers seeking answers are sent to the red door at 1839 Wylie Street to consult Aunt Ester, a three hundred and twenty-two year old prophetess. Like the Cumaean Sibyl or the Sphinx, she provides her pilgrims not with answers but with riddles and parables, divinations that they themselves must interpret. Specifically, she offers them the choice of remaining passive or moving towards their fate—if they are ready to walk through fire to reach it. She may extend healing but the comfort comes with a knife's edge. Her presence, reaching back to precolonial days, represents African American memory: the choice is to ignore it or to retrieve it. As Memphis says of his own travels, "I'm going back there one day…. They've got two trains running every day."

Both Wilson and Director Lloyd Richards have often spoken of how their collaborations on four previous plays have allowed them both to recover their own personal histories, to retell stories they heard in their childhood. August Wilson has written his plays so that each expresses some aspect of the African American experience in each decade of the twentieth century: Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the turn of the century; Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in the Jazz Age: The Piano Lesson during the Depression; Fullerton Street during World War II and Fences in the 1950s. These plays create their own context and history for Two Trains Running. The characters and events do not exist merely as distinct dramatic moments; they are woven into the fabric of remembrance August Wilson summons up in his chronicle of the African American experience. Memory has been given a voice.

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This section contains 1,124 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lisa Wilde
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