It is 1969, four years after the assassination of Malcolm X. In a Pittsburgh diner, the owner, Memphis, and frequent customer Wolf discuss the dearth of economic opportunities for the city’s residents for whom gambling on numbers offers the best chances of getting ahead. Memphis’ wife recently left him, and the city wants to take his building through eminent domain and tear it down as part of an urban renewal project. He is engaged in legal proceedings with the city and says he won’t take less than $25,000 for his property. At every opportunity, Memphis barks orders at Risa, the diner’s sole employee.
Holloway enters, bringing news of people lined up to pay respects to Prophet Samuel, a recently deceased local leader whom some believe was sent by God to deliver justice to blacks. The prophet is laid out for viewing at West’s Funeral Home across the street from the diner. Hambone, unable to forget an injustice done to him in the past, enters, repeating his demand for recompense. Sterling, recently released from the penitentiary, comes to the restaurant for a meal and job prospects, and finds himself attracted to the reclusive Risa. Holloway proclaims that a visit to a local wise woman named Aunt Ester can resolve Hambone and Sterling’s problems. Aunt Ester, whose age equals the number of years that Africans have been in America, never appears in the play, but the air is thick with her presence.
In fact, the play is as much about absence as it is about presence. A rally to celebrate the would-be 40th birthday of Malcolm X looms over the play, as does the death of Prophet Samuel, the lack of opportunities and daily negotiations with injustices. Past events figure prominently as the narrative unfolds and each character tries to decide how to move forward with so much broken history behind them.
e-Luminations: Two Trains Running
This edited version is reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
The Carrier of Memories
They don’t know to go see Aunt Ester. Aunt Ester give you more than money.
She make you right with yourself. —Holloway, Two Trains Running
The spirit of Aunt Ester appears in each of the plays in August Wilson’s epic 10-play cycle. In 1969, she embodies 349 years of memories and experiences, which corresponds to the number of years that African people had been in America. She is the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the culture, tradition, heritage and wisdom of a people separated from their ancestral home. In Gem of the Ocean, Aunt Ester proclaims, “I got memories go way back. I’m carrying them for a lot of folk. All the old-timey folks. I’m carrying their memories and I’m carrying my own.”
Aunt Ester is aunt and mother and ancestor for all of her people. In fact, according to scholar Harry J. Elam Jr., her name represents “a riff of aural signifyin’, sounds similar to ‘ancestor.’ ” In addition, her name is evocative of the biblical heroine Esther, a Jewish woman who became wife of the Persian King Xerxes and who risked her life to save her people. Similarly, Wilson’s Aunt Ester holds the past and present lives of her people as a vessel of memories and experiences that also serves as a pathway forward into the future. As such, she represents one of Wilson’s most enduring themes, which is the belief that black Americans must claim and maintain their culture and traditions in order to thrive. In Two Trains Running, we hear this expressed in the mandate to “go back and pick up the ball.”
However, more than a mere memory bank, she is a divine clairvoyant who empowers seekers with instruments of self-healing. In his 2003 essay in American Theatre magazine, “Salvation in the City of Bones,” Wilson revealed, “She has emerged for me as the most significant persona of the Cycle. The characters are all her children. The wisdom and tradition she embodies are valuable tools for the reconstruction of their personalities and for dealing with a society in which the contradictions, over the decades, have grown more fierce.”