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Two Trains Running

Setting:  1969
Written:  1990
Huntington Production:  1990

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Two Trains Running Characters
Two Trains Running Synopsis 

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Curriculum Guide

Characters

  • MEMPHIS: Memphis Lee is a self-made man whose values of hard work, diligence, persistence and honesty have been consistently challenged by the circumstances of his life. His greatest asset is his impeccable logic. He owns a restaurant that the city intends to demolish. He is determined to negotiate a fair price out of the demolition. He is confident in playing the White man’s game as long as he knows the rules. With little patience for those who preach the “black is beautiful” mantra—he claims it sounds as if those black people are trying to convince themselves.
  • STERLING: A young man of thirty, he appears at times to be unbalanced, but it is a combination of his unorthodox logic and straightforward manner that makes him appear so. Only recently released from the penitentiary after serving some time for robbing a bank, Sterling is new to the scene of Two Trains Running. He is in search of work, and when he finds Memphis Lee’s restaurant and the group that hangs there it gives him the chance to seek advice from a colorful group of characters.
  • WOLF: He is a Numbers Runner—someone who carries the money and betting slips between the betting parlors and the headquarters or “Numbers Bank.” He enjoys the notoriety and popularity that comes with this work. While he manages to keep money in his pocket and a decent pair of shoes on his feet, his inability to find secure female companionship is the single failure that marks his life.
  • HOLLOWAY: A retired house-painter, who, in his retirement, has become a self-made philosopher of sorts. He is a man who all his life has voiced his outrage at injustice with little effect. His belief in the supernatural has enabled him to accept his inability to effect change and continue to pursue life with zest and vigor. He is equally enraged by white men who exploit black men, and any black men who try to fight back. If anyone happens to come to him with a problem, he will send them on over to the oldest woman in town—an Aunt Ester—to sort it out.
  • WEST: A widower in his early sixties, he is the owner of the wealthiest business on the block. West runs the funeral parlor across the street from the restaurant. His wife’s death has allowed his love of money to overshadow the other possibilities of life. It is his practical view of death that has earned him the title of perhaps the sharpest social observer in the play 

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Synopsis

Act I Scene 1:  The play opens in a small restaurant across the street from West’s Funeral Home and Lutz’s Meat Market.  Wolf finishes up a phone call on which he takes down some one’s numbers bet and the restaurant owner, Memphis, scolds him for tying up the phone line.  Memphis is waiting for a call from his lawyer.  Risa, a waitress, states that she does not understand why people play the numbers and Wolf compares it to putting money in a bank, except that “this way you might take out more than you put in.”  Wolf asks Memphis if he’s heard from his “old lady” and Memphis reports that she’s up at her sister’s house but hasn’t spoken to him for two months.  He says that she left him saying she was tired, but Memphis can’t understand how that could be so when all she had to do was take care of the house and kids.

Holloway comes in, describing the long line of people across the street, waiting to get in to the funeral of a man called Prophet Samuel.  West, the owner of the funeral home, is a rich man but there are rumors he got that way through unethical behavior.  He has been trying to buy the building housing Memphis’s restaurant for years.  But on Tuesday, Memphis will be going downtown to find out how much the city will pay him when they demolish it.  Memphis laments the fact that businesses have been pushed out of the neighborhood.  It seems as though West has been getting richer while everyone else has been getting poorer.  Memphis is skeptical that the city will give him a good price.  Holloway says the last person West buried that he cared about was his own wife.  Everyone else is just a dead body to him.

Hambone enters.  He is a man in a deteriorated mental state.  He only says “He gonna give me my ham” and “I want my ham.”  Risa fixes him some lunch and gives him a jacket to keep warm.  She does not plan to go see Prophet Samuel because it will be too hard for her.

Sterling enters, recently released from prison.  He is disdained to find out that the only food currently available in the restaurant is beans and cornbread.  He has been eating beans for five years in prison and is looking for a real, home cooked meal.  He remembers Risa from their youth when he was friends with her brother, Rodney.  Before their conversation gets too far, Memphis orders Risa back into the kitchen to clean and fry some chicken.  Sterling asks the other men if they know where he can get a job.  He tried the steel mill but the mill said he had to join the union before he could work but the union said he had to be working before he could join.  Holloway suggests he try a nearby junkyard.  Sterling tries to sell Wolf a watch for three dollars.  

Sterling says he thinks he was born with bad luck.  He thinks that maybe if he goes to see Prophet Samuel his luck will change.  He’s heard of others rubbing Prophet Samuel’s head and then finding money a short time later.  Holloway thinks the smartest thing is to go see Aunt Ester, who can help anyone who is having problems.  She is 322 years old.  Memphis thinks it makes more sense to go try to rub Prophet Samuel’s head for good luck than to go see Aunt Ester.  But Holloway insists that the peace and positive energy you can get from Aunt Ester is better than simply getting rich.  Sterling goes off to see her.

Scene 2:  Memphis and Wolf watch Hambone through the window.  He is asking Lutz, a white man who once promised to give him a ham for painting a fence, for his ham.  Holloway says that Hambone is not going to let Lutz forget about the ham because “he ain’t willing to accept whatever the white man throw at him.”  Memphis recounts being run off his own farm in the South before coming to Pittsburgh and his determination to take it back some day.

The men discuss the scars on Risa’s legs.  She cut them up to make them ugly and get men to leave her alone.  She wants people to pay attention to her personality, not her body.  She was examined at a psychiatric hospital once but the doctors could not find anything wrong with her.  They have noticed Sterling looking at her.  Memphis says he heard that Sterling was in prison for robbing a bank.  He got caught because he went out and spent the money ten minutes later.  He was recently laid off from a construction job for being lazy.  Holloway rejects this notion, saying that white people only got what they have by climbing on the backs of blacks who did all the work for hundreds of years.

West comes in to the restaurant for coffee.  He dispels rumors that Prophet Samuel’s casket is full of rings and hundred dollar bills.  He asks Memphis when he’s going downtown.  Memphis will go tomorrow and is hoping to get $25,000 for his building.  West thinks this is foolish and that he’ll get $12,000 at the most.  He reiterates that he is willing to buy the building from Memphis for $15,000, which Memphis refuses.  West leaves. 

Sterling returns, having been turned away from Aunt Ester’s by a man who claims she is sick.  Sterling invites Memphis, Holloway, and Risa to a rally celebrating Malcolm X’s birthday.  Memphis complains that Black Power is a misguided philosophy.  He says the only power that whites understand comes with a gun and that those who say “black is beautiful” sound like they are trying to convince themselves.

Hambone comes in and Risa pours him some coffee.  She and Memphis argue about whether Hambone should be allowed to stay.  Memphis says he is sick of hearing Hambone and sends him back outside to bother Lutz.

Scene 3:  Sterling eats alone in the restaurant.  He tells Risa he tried to talk to Hambone.  Risa says that Hambone understands everything that goes on around him, but people don’t take the time to understand him.  Sterling admits to Risa that he was in prison for robbing a bank.  He asks her about her scars and she does not say much, other than that it did not hurt to cut herself.  He asks her again to come to the Malcolm X rally with him but she says she stays “away from all that kind of stuff.”  He says that if he doesn’t find a job soon he’ll have to make money playing the numbers.  Risa says she doesn’t understand why people throw money away like that, but if he’s going to play, he should play 781. 

Holloway enters and Sterling asks him which fence Hambone painted for Lutz.  When Holloway tells him, Sterling says Lutz should have given him two hams for a job that big.  Sterling laments the fact that the world is as crazy as it is and that it is so difficult to get ahead.  He says that if he can’t find a job he may need to find a gun.  Wolf says that it is impossible to avoid ending up in jail and Sterling says that if he’s going to go, it might as well be for something.  Wolf tells a story about a man currently in jail who was arrested for stealing a dress to bury his deceased wife in.  The group all pitch in a dollar or two to contribute to the collection towards helping bail the man out of jail. 

After Wolf leaves, Sterling sits one-on-one with Hambone.  He has been working on getting him to say something else and gets him to say “black is beautiful.”  Memphis returns, angry that the city will only give him $15,000 for his building.  He fired his lawyer, which caused the proceedings to be postponed.  Memphis is determined that the city will meet his price.  He has been through a lot of hardship and has nothing to lose.

Act II, Scene 1:  Sterling arrives at the restaurant with flowers for Risa.  They are stolen from the funeral home across the street.  Hambone enters and appears to have reverted back to saying just his old phrases.  Sterling coaxes him to say “united we stand, divided we fall.”  

Wolf enters with a brown paper bag and sells Sterling its contents (presumably a gun) for $20.  Memphis derides Wolf for running numbers out of his restaurant.  West enters and reports that some one has busted out his window.  He has hired a man named Mason to sit by the gaping hole with a shotgun to protect the funeral home.  West makes a new offer to buy Memphis’s building—he will pay $20,000 ($15,000 up front and $5,000 more when he sells the building to the city himself.  Memphis recounts the story of how he was run off of his farm in Jackson, MS and his intent to go back and reclaim it some day.

Sterling tries to convince West to give him a job as a hearse driver or washing the cars.  West declines.  Sterling has just been to try to see Aunt Ester again but was turned away because she was sleeping.  West says that when he went to see Aunt Ester, he asked if his wife was in heaven.  She told him to throw $20 in the river and then come back and see her.  But he refused to “waste” his money like that.  Holloway went to see her once because he wanted to kill his grandfather.  He was instructed to throw $20 in the river every week for a month but it got the desire to go away.  Sterling says he would throw $20 in the river if it would help him get a job. 

Scene 2:  Holloway enters, asking if anyone has seen Hambone.  Lutz has been asking about him, but no one seems to know where he is.  Wolf takes Holloway’s numbers bet on 781, the number Sterling has been playing.  Wolf warns that Sterling will not like it and tells Holloway that he needs to explain to Sterling that it’s not Wolf’s fault, but Holloway refuses to tell Sterling anything.  Wolf exits to get his pistol from the pawnshop.

Holloway and Memphis discuss the reasons why people play the numbers.  Memphis sees the flyer for the Malcolm X rally on the wall and tears it down, saying he “ain’t putting no sanction on nothing like that.”  He believes that a rally should “spur you into action” but that those who participate in these rallies do nothing but plan for the next one.  They do not know how to take any action.  Memphis advises Risa to stay away from Sterling.  Holloway agrees that Sterling is bad news, especially because he is now carrying a gun.

Sterling enters, looking for Wolf and having come from watching Prophet Samuel’s funeral.  Risa claims that “Prophet Samuel wasn’t no preacher.  He was a prophet like they have in the Bible.  God sent him to help the colored people get justice…Whatever Prophet Samuel prophesied, it come true.”  She thinks that many of those who turned out for the funeral were just hypocrites who did not go to see him when he was alive.  Sterling says he thinks the end of the world is coming soon and Risa says that Prophet Samuel preached that God would send a sign when the end times were near.  Memphis thinks it is foolish to worry about the end of the world because there’s nothing you can do about it.  Memphis is continuing his fight to get $25,000 for his building.  He confirms Aunt Ester’s address with Holloway, planning to go there for her help.

Scene 3:  Later that day, the news has come that Hambone is dead.  West has gone down to the morgue to get the body.  West enters the restaurant and Risa suggests that he lay Hambone out in a nice casket.  West says he wouldn’t look right in a fancy one and will be putting him in a pauper’s casket because of the price difference.  Sterling enters, looking for Wolf, who he claims owes him $1200.  He says that when he has his money, he will take Risa to Vegas where they will get married and buy a ranch.  Risa is not interested in playing along and resumes hassling West to put Hambone in a better casket.

Wolf enters and Sterling asks for his money.  Wolf says he will only get $600 because the odds were cut by half.  Sterling takes the $600 and leaves, saying he is going to go give it back the Alberts, who run the game.

Scene 4:  Sterling enters the restaurant and asks Risa if she wants to go to the rally.  He tells her he confronted Old Man Albert and got his original $2 bet back.  On his way back, he finally got in to see Aunt Ester who gave him some advice and told him to throw $20 in the river, which he did.  He again tells Risa that he wants to be with her.  “I figure me and you get us a nice little old place…Ain’t you tired of sleeping by yourself?  I am.  You ain’t got to take care of you…let me do that.”  He asks Risa why she scarred her legs and Risa responds that she wanted to make them ugly.  He tells her that she should take male attention as a compliment and that it says a lot that he continues to go after her even when she’s turned him down so many times.  Risa says she won’t get tied up with him because he’s likely to go back to the penitentiary.  She doesn’t want to be with some one she has to worry about like that.  But moments later, there is an Aretha Franklin song playing on the jukebox.  Sterling and Risa dance together and kiss.

Scene 5:  The day of Hambone’s funeral.  Wolf went over to see him and reports that West has laid him out nicely.  At the rally the night before, he saw Risa and Sterling.  He remarks on how peaceful the rally was.  However, a fire that is still burning destroyed a drugstore.  Holloway claims the owner burned it down himself to collect the insurance. 

West enters and says he plans to bury Hambone the next day.  Memphis enters, drunk.  He followed Aunt Ester’s instructions to tie his $20 to a rock and throw it in the river before heading down to the courthouse.  When he got there, the city offered him $35,000 for his building.  As Memphis makes plans for a new restaurant, there is a sound of breaking glass and a burglar alarm.  Sterling enters, bleeding from his face and hands, carrying a large ham.  “Say Mr. West,” he says.  “That’s for Hambone’s casket.”

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