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Two Trains Running

  • February 16 - July 7, 2013
  • By August Wilson | Directed by Lou Bellamy
Run Time:3 hours and 16 minutes; includes a 15-minute intermission

At the crossroads of a revolution

It’s 1969, and change is in the air. But for the owner of a threadbare diner in a dying Pittsburgh neighborhood, the civil rights movement may just be an impractical dream. Torn between whether to gamble on an urban-renewal buyout or sell his building to a predatory businessman, he finds himself caught between idealism and brutal reality. August Wilson’s searing portrait of African-American life in the ’60s tells a complex story of the inner lives of ordinary people at an explosive turning point in American history.

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The Story

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.”



August Wilson

Creative Team

Lou Bellamy
Scenic Designer
Vicki Smith
Costume Designer
Mathew LeFebvre
Lighting Designer
Jaymi Lee Smith
Sound Designer
Martin Gwinup
Voice & Text Director
David Carey
Stage Manager
D. Christian Bolender*
Production Assistant


Terry Bellamy*
Kenajuan Bentley*
Bakesta King*
Josiah Phillips*
Tyrone Wilson*
Kevin Kenerly*
Jerome Preston Bates*
* Member of Actors' Equity Association (AEA)
**AEA Professional Theatre Intern
  • Two Trains Running

    Trailer: Two Trains Running

    Don't miss this play!

  • Lou Bellamy image

    More about the Play

    More insights about the play from Director Lou Bellamy. Excerpted from a recent Informed Volunteer Program and intercut with production video.

  • Bellamy image

    Ritual & Community

    Director Lou Bellamy talks about the importance of this work, and the role that ritual and community have in deepening the cultural context of Wilson's play.

  • Two Trains Set

    Snapshot: Setting the Scene

    On the set of Two Trains Running with Senior Properties Master Paul James Martin

  • Two Trains rendering

    Snapshot: Bringing the Vision to Life

    Cutter/draper Karen Peterson talks about her work on TWO TRAINS RUNNING.

  • Weeds

    Snapshot: Weeds & Rubbish

    Step into the back alley of the set with Paul James Martin, senior properties master.

  • Two Trains Running

    Snapshot: Ham Preservation

    Paul James Martin, Senior Properties Master, shares preservation secrets.

  • Daily Tidings logo

    Nuanced and complex performances by an excellent cast

    "...flawlessly presented..."
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  • Mail Tribune logo

    Big themes; firm direction

    "The characters worm their way into your brain, and you care about them."
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  • Sacramento Bee logo

    Electric acting in "Two Trains Running"

    "Director Lou Bellamy finds simple, profound Wilson's cautiously optimistic work."
    Click the logo to read the complete review.