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Monday, October 2, 2017

Play Review: Two Trains Running (1990) and The Ambiguity of One's Desires

Though the Black Power Movement and their various rallies and protests are only mere background elements in the work, August Wilson’s Two Trains Running is a refreshing depiction of white exploitation, racial conflict, oppression, hopelessness and the humor and love that’s used to counteract all of that within an urban black community. The plausibility behind all Wilson's characters' hopes and desires lies in not only conviction in their dialogue, but also in each of the character’s ability to keep pushing for what they want, even if their logic is not always rational.

Regardless of whether it is love, money, success, respect or ham that they want, everyone has something to strive for and it is something they’re consistent at doing. Our lead, Memphis, is fighting a system that he doesn’t quite know that’s there to get the money he deems is acceptable for his restaurant. The mentally-challenged, Hambone, has been striving for ham for questionable reasons from the local white butcher for the last nine-and-a-half years. He seemingly acts as a foil to Memphis as they both are actively demanding what’s due from white people in higher positions of power. Though Hambone’s need for ham acts as a bit of a comedic relief to the play, after his death, all of the activism done in the name of ham is illustrated to be not so different than Memphis’ in regard to the situation with his money and his restaurant. Similarly to Hambone’s persistence in getting his ham, Memphis’ overtly driven personality is also what pushes him forward in his struggle against the white city developers that want his restaurant. However, it’s also the added ambiguity in different elements of their many of their rationalizations in accordance to their desires that also ties them together. For example, we don’t know why Hambone strives for ham from the white butcher nor is it ever revealed even after his death. As for Memphis, he believes that people are free agents that can do as they please. However, he cannot comprehend just how institutionalized racism still inhibits and limits specifically black people from doing what they want to do. Even though he acknowledges that white people owe him certain things, it is solely due to his own sense of entitlement, rather than one from a political standpoint that sees the higher, white forces working against black people like him.

A young, politically-curious, ex-convict named Sterling wants the love of Risa, one of Memphis’ workers, along with copious amounts of money. The same goes for his comrade, Wolf, who runs an illegal lottery service from Memphis’ restaurant. Wolf’s work brings him some uneasiness due to the unfairness in how the winnings are distributed rather than its illegitimacy or the fact that it contributes to the exploitation of the impoverished people of his town. Sterling just wants a job. Though men like Memphis might assume that men like Sterling can’t find work because they’re lazy, the play itself insinuates that it’s quite hard for black people to find work, which is true during the time in which the play is set. Though Sterling's unbalanced nature which lies in both his spiritual and political convictions on top of his criminal record also inhibit him from being able to hold down a stable job, the harsh reality of the matter is that white business weren't hiring black people. But, of course, he doesn’t realize this even though he chooses to advocate for the Black Power Movement while simultaneously listening to the likes of both Prophet Samuel and Aunt Ester, who preach conflicting spiritual convictions.

 As for Risa, the object of their affection, it is later revealed that she cuts herself to protect herself against men from viewing her in a sexual light and for the most part, it works. Though both Sterling and Wolf’s infatuation with her seems to stem from something other than her body, they still reduce her character to solely her femininity by their constant utterances of sexism. Sterling continuously pines after without giving Risa so much as second in between his rapid flirtatious dialogue for her to get a word in edgewise, while Wolf stays silent when he can see the other men demeaning her. Risa’s part in the play in minimal, but it does expose another intersectional level of oppression in their world as not only does she have to deal with the problems that come with being black, she also must deal with the problems that come with being a woman. Though she believes that mutilating her body is an easy fix for the issue that she has with men sexualizing her, she still must deal with men reducing her character to sexist stereotypes involving her gender. A large issue that I have regarding this issue with Risa is the fact that doesn’t seem to see many of these problems as genuine issues. For most of the play, not only does she ignore many of the sexist statements that are regarded towards her, she ends up getting together with Sterling even though he is the one who made most of the sexist statements towards her. However, Risa's ignorance of her own female oppression could reflect Wilson's inability to conceptualize the struggles of womanhood and the oppression that comes in hand with it from a female perspective. Wilson enabling Risa to voice her opinions about her own mistreatment works in his favor because it resembles that of the silent women that have come before her, but it does restrict

Though all these things that these characters are striving for what seems like very straight-forward desires, it is the way that these characters view the world around them and societal institutions that are inscribed within that world, that inhibits them from fully stepping up to the plate to take ahold of their dreams. Though they seem to really know what they want and ultimately keep repeating it to themselves and others, it is hard to decipher whether they’re trying to prove something to themselves or someone else through these achievements. It's only through them realize just exactly what they're fighting against and for what reasons that they can realize this, but unfortunately for Wilson's characters, they have a long way to go.

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