Today is the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis. Of course, the cadre of Americans (or global citizens) who can still respond to the prompt, "Where were you…?" is shrinking and will soon enough be gone. I count myself among those who have no answer to the question. But as a shared piece of Americana, King's death is a fine point of departure for reflections on race in the nation that he left behind. Unfortunately, human responses to such a foundational myth are doomed to ordinariness. I've felt nothing captures the everyday aftermath more poignantly than Two Trains Running, by the late August Wilson.
Wilson, another indigenous American hero, began to write a story about the United States when he was 20 years old. His ten-play cycle covers the black American experience in each decade of the twentieth century, from sharecropping days in Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1911), to tenement living under Reaganomics in King Hedley II (1985). The miraculous effort, which won Wilson multiple Pulitzers, was completed just before his death in 2005 (while in residence at Yale Drama School, where he had written and premiered many of his most famous works). The Kennedy Center is just completing the first-ever performances of all ten plays in sequence, gathering some the best actors in America to tell this story of ordinary black people in an extraordinary country.
Two Trains Running, set thoughtfully in 1969, deals with the sixties as they are drawing to a close--years removed from the sit-ins and riots and historic lawmaking that define it in our imaginary. The effect is therefore not confrontational, but referential. From Pittsburgh's Hill District (the setting for all but one of Wilson's plays), the ensemble animates an aging neighborhood restaurant with wit, intelligence and anger. The economic and personal hardships of the moment take center stage; and somewhat counterintuitively, Malcolm X features prominently, while King, a year dead, is mentioned just once in passing. Some see this as Wilson's (c. 1990) critique of the great schism in African American politics--and an elegy for the loss of leadership within the dueling strains of the civil rights movement.
But primarily Wilson's story is about regular Americans, for whom both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King could be champions. And the national attention paid to these leaders notwithstanding, Two Trains is also a story of migration, war, and humiliation--for Wilson's wearied men, experienced without any sense of their mattering. I presume to believe that is the case even today.
Regarding the 1992 Broadway premiere, Frank Rich (then, as now, covering theater) had the same feeling:
Just as this is the Wilson work in which the characters are the furthest removed from both Africa and the Old South (to which the untaken trains of the title lead), so it is also the Wilson play closest in time to our own. "You take something apart, you should know how to put it together," says Sterling early on, referring to a wristwatch he hesitates to dismantle. Rough in finish and unresolved at the final curtain, "Two Trains Running" captures a racially divided country as it came apart. That Mr. Wilson's history bleeds so seamlessly into the present is testimony to the fact that the bringing together of that America is a drama yet to unfold.
(Photo Credit: Carl Juste for McClatchy-Tribune, March 2008)