Dear White People: TWO TRAINS RUNNING is not a play about race

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Photos by Mark Garvin.

August Wilson’s TWO TRAINS RUNNING is not a play about race.

Set in 1969 Pittsburgh against the backdrop of racial tension amplified by the deaths of Dr. King and Malcolm X, it is a play that comments on these events. Briefly. Literally, characters hold a brief conversation addressing the recent assassinations of these influential figures, but said conversation more emphasises the subject of death than it does race.

Why, then, do white critics think that this play is about race, even to the point of deeming it unrelatable to people outside of the African-American community?

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“African American Experience”

“It’s a great time for Wilson,” says John Timpane of Philly.com. Indeed it is. Wilson’s skill is demonstrated in dialogue that has an almost scary contemporary feel; despite being set in the 60s and written over two decades ago, the play features commentary that one would hear standing in a room full of African Americans even today.

Timpane means well in his summation, describing the play as “talk, people, place,” but he goes on to say of Wilson’s writing, “His achievement was to document how African Americans shared their worlds throughout the tumults of the 20th century.” That’s not an achievement. That is an objective. And when you put it that way, summing the play’s story up as “African Americans [sharing] their worlds,” then “talk, people, place”  becomes “black talk, by black people, in black places.”

Timpane is not alone; most reviewers covering this production implied that the narrative is exclusively black, and that because it is an all-black production, the issues these characters face and the emotions they feel are somehow limited within the confines of “the African-American experience.”  

A version of this problematic phrase was used by almost every white reviewer to describe the play (“African American experience” by Christopher Munden in these pages and Naomi Orwin in Broad Street Review; “black experience” by Frank Burd in Broad Street Review; African American community” in Tim Dunleavy’s review for DC Metro Theater Arts and Rebecca Rendell’s in Talking Broadway; “African American life” in Lewis Whittington’s review for Culture Vulture and Bob Behr’s for Philadelphia Free Press; “African-American history” by David Fox in his generally well-tuned piece for PhillyMag.com). This adjective ostracizes the black community from American society. What would an all-white play set in a 1960s Pittsburgh illustrate? The “American experience”?

Writing for Broad Street Review, Naomi Orwin captures this idea that Wilson’s work is a work from another culture. “We are still having the same conversations about race relations and what it means to be black in a white world. I can only write about this as the outsider, the observer. So I find myself asking questions I can’t answer,” she writes. “Here is a play by a black playwright, directed and performed by black actors, performed for a mostly white audience . . . Are we anthropologists studying another culture through their artifacts? How do we accurately evaluate what we are seeing?”

No. A critic evaluating TWO TRAINS RUNNING is not an anthropologist studying another culture through their artifacts. Here’s how you accurately evaluate what you see in the play: You watch it, and you make human connections.

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Black issues are human issues

I’m not saying any of these reviewers are consciously racist; many go to lengths to clarify that they are not. I’m singling out Philadelphia critics writing about a single play, but an examination of their reviews reveals unconscious biases that run through criticism by white reviewers of plays written by non-white playwrights. (See Diep Tran’s recent piece in American Theatre for national examples and a much-needed guide for how theater critics can be less racist.)

The experiences and the issues addressed in TWO TRAINS RUNNING are not exclusively black. There are conversations about race relations, yes, but there are also conversations about death, life, change, manhood, the power of women, loss, luck, love, spirituality, choices, the meaning of justice, the effects of injustice, unemployment, and so on. There is so much conversation going on in this play, that a member of any race could relate to some experience or connect with some character. And yet the bulk of these reviewers address the play as outsiders, as if the subject of skin color forges an invisible electrical boundary that, if touched, would instantly shock a white person with 10,000 volts of conviction.

Frank Burd tries to take a slightly different approach, opening his review by sharing his portion of the African American experience: “My parents taught me the proper word for dark-skinned people: The word was ‘Negro.’ To say ‘black’ was insulting, and of course we never heard the word ‘nigger’ in my home or even among my friends. We did hear the word ‘colored’ to describe Negroes, but I was confused, because I thought colored meant mixed race.”

Of course, we should hope Frank no longer uses the word Negro to address a black person. But putting that aside, why does he open with a commentary on how white people referred to blacks during his childhood. The play doesn’t talk about this. Burd’s review does not talk about this in relation to TWO TRAINS RUNNING. Perhaps that it is Burd’s only profound experience with African Americans? If that is the case, then these things are better left unsaid.

As Munden points out in his Phindie review, many of the references to race in this production are interpolations by director Raelle Myrick-Hodges—archival footage of figures Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others display above set between scenes, setting the context for the audience in such a way that the dialogue between characters doesn’t have to. And when the subject of race does come up in conversation, characters don’t blame white members of society any more than they condemn members of our own race: criticizing the violence of Civil Rights rallies, the laziness within the community, and the foolishness of putting trust in the lottery rather than earning money the traditional way.

There is no “black” perspective in this play; each character has his own viewpoint, offering a well-rounded assessment of how individual members of the community think.

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What is this play about?

So if race is not the defining theme of TWO TRAINS RUNNING, what do critics overlook when they focus on it in reviewing this production.

It is a play about justice. Each character feels cheated. For example, Hambone was promised an entire ham if he did a “good job” painting the fence of Lutz, the butcher across the street. After the job is done, Hambone instead receives a chicken, an insult that implies Hambone’s paint job was inadequate.

Almost every reviewer who summarizes this portion of the story makes a point of stating that Lutz (who never actually appears in the play) is a white character: “Hambone was deprived by a white Lutz of his rightful payment for painting a fence,” writes Christopher Munden. “Hambone . . . also wants what he believes he is owed—the ham he was promised by the white butcher in return for painting his fence,” Naomi Orwin’s words. John Timpane goes on to say, “Kashmir Goins . . . steps across as Hambone, driven crazy by a white swindle.” Lutz he doesn’t just represent a “white swindle”, “discrimination” (Tim Dunleavy), or “oppression experienced by all black Americans” (Rebecca Rendel in Talking Broadway). He represents injustice: A man works hard for what he deserves and, in the end, feels as though he does not receive that, which is something to which people of any color should be able to relate.

Likewise, these reviewers also fail to drive the point that, in the end, it is a white lawyer who helps Memphis Lee get justice. Lee, the owner of the diner, gripes throughout the play about getting due payment for his property. He names his price: $25,000, and while the city is willing to dish out no more than 15K, Memphis insists that he won’t sell for a dollar less than his price. The whole play narrates Memphis’s struggle in court to get the payment he believes he deserves.

It is a play about women. Despite the fact that Risa, the diner’s waitress and cook, is the sole onstage female character, the play mentions several other female characters who, in some way, have an undeniable influence on the male characters that appear onstage. In fact, each male character is in some way motivated by a woman: For West, it is his deceased wife; for Memphis, his estranged wife and deceased mother; for Holloway, his grandmother, whom he respected dearly, and Aunt Ester; for Wolf, Sterling, and Hambone, it is Risa, whose quiet strength and stony attitude are both mysterious and enchanting to nearly every man she comes across, many of whom chant, “I know Risa,” and none of whom actually do.

Risa, who scarred her legs with a razor in hopes of attracting less sexual attention from the male species, is the manifestation of a feeling any woman might have when she is only ogled for her appearance and what she might be like in bed, rather than what lies beneath her skin.  “When I write about women’s issues in a play, I bring to it my lived experience as well as my education in women’s history and women’s rights,” writes Orwin. “This play, with its treatment of the one female character who mutilates herself is ripe for that kind of discussion, but I lack the contextual experience of the black female to give it justice.”

What does Risa’s self-mutilation have anything to do with the fact that she is black? If a white female character who cut her legs to seek less attention from men, would she have been relatable then?

Risa is black, but she could represent any woman. As Munden says of Risa, “Men who rail against the inequality of the races have no qualms objectifying her body and disregarding her presence.” Risa’s character was written to excite the feminists in the audience, taking a silent stand against the injustice of hypocritical men who believe that every person should be considered equal, as long as he has a penis.

It is a play about change. With the dawn of a new decade approaching, the neighborhood these characters knew as home slowly transforming into the city’s playground for new business, and the diner that holds so many memories impending shutdown, the gang discovers that change, like death, is inevitable. In the process, many inner changes are taking place for these characters, from Risa finally deciding to let her guard down, to Memphis putting his skepticism and stubbornness aside long enough to have a little faith.  

This should be the easiest theme in the play to connect with, yet reviewers even overlook this one, using terms like “urban renewal” (Timpane, Dunleavy) to sum up what is such a prevalent, important and recurring theme within the production’s two-and-a-half hour running time. It extends way beyond urban renewal. In TWO TRAINS RUNNING, change is happening within and without.

It is a play about fear. Fear of change, unemployment, the future, loneliness, death; these are just some of the issues—human issues, not black issues—that the play explores, and the same issues that we all, as humans, contemplate at some point in our lives, regardless of race or gender.

Yet reviews by white critics—male and female alike—have overlooked many of the neutral lessons at the play’s core and painted them black, assigning them under the umbrella of “the African American experience.”

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Black culture as other

Why is black art—literature, cinema, theater—only relatable to the African American audience or experience? Why does Munden mar an otherwise insightful review by comparing August Wilson only to other African-American writers?

This idea that black culture is somehow an “other” runs beyond the critical community to theater companies. Why are Wilson’s plays only being produced during “Black History Month season,” as Tim Dunleavy and David Fox point out? Why are African-American works constantly pigeonholed?

“Wilson’s skill—which Myrick-Hodges recognizes and accentuates—comes in creating recognizable individuals: real characters who represent the experiences of many without devolving into caricature.” Munden’s words here reveal Wilson’s true achievement: The successful representation of characters—yes, black characters—who are real. These characters don’t reinforce stereotypes, like so many poorly written black characters do; yet, they are so familiar that it is easy for anyone to find some way to identify with them on a human level.

When writing about “black art”, it is essential to first write from a human perspective. How can I relate to this character’s external and internal issues, regardless of race? There is no harm in addressing race, but pointing out the obvious—that TWO TRAINS RUNNING is a “black play”—as a white writer, whether to make the point that you don’t have the experience to elaborate on it, like Orwin does, or to contemplate how difficult it must be to be black, like Burd does, only ostracizes our race and makes it seem like we’re a species being observed, proving that our art is not taken as seriously as work by white artists. A black play should be reviewed the same way Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams would: with little emphasis on race and most on the human experience.

As Bob Behr put it for the Philadelphia Free Press: “Throughout his career until his death in 2005, August Wilson’s chief focus was the black experience in America. He often commented, however, that he wrote for all audiences and his aim was to shed light on the universality of human experience. With this production of TWO TRAINS RUNNING, that light burns a little brighter.”

[Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second Street] March 10-April 10, 2016; ardentheatre.org.

Reviews of TWO TRAINS RUNNING

 

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About the author

Trish McFadden

Trish McFadden is a Philly-based writer and film enthusiast. A recipient of the 2015 Judith Stark Award for her short story Rain, her writing has been featured in Limited Editions magazine and her short films have been screened at the CUFF Film Festival; however, she is most proud of her expansive movie poster and DVD collection.