Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review
Two Trains Running
by August Wilson
At last! August Wilson's play. Two Trains Running, has achieved a task that has eluded so many other plays in the 'black' genre--to show in a fully rounded human way how black Americans have responded to living under one of the most racially oppressive societies.
This play is the sixth in a series of ten plays which, decade by decade, intend to give voice to the sufferings, the triumphs, and the struggles of black Americans. Ma Raineys Black Bottom was the first incomparable instalment of this ambitious series of plays.
Two Trains Running is set in an American diner in Pittsburgh--replete with high stools and a jukebox. The year is 1969. This is significant because this is at a time when the civil rights and black power movements had reached their zenith--the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are recent events.
Wilson approaches these mass struggles in a molecular way by refracting, prism like, all the debates, inconsistencies and frustrations of the civil rights movement in part through plot, in part through the supreme dialogue, but the lion's share of his approach is done through the characters.
On the one hand, we have Memphis, the restaurant owner, locked in a struggle with the city council to give him the same price they would to any white store owner for his property. He is the perfect facsimile of a small shop owner--at one moment ranting against the racist white establishment, the next raving against the 'black power niggers with no money in their pocket' (Black Panthers to me and you).
On the other hand, you have Sterling, just released from prison, being shunted from union office to different employers in his search for a job.
Above all, you have Hambone, named so because he was promised a hambone nine and half years ago for painting a fence, which he never receives and has demanded every day since. Hambone's struggle clearly symbolises the struggle of Martin Luther King and the millions who fought with him--whose demands were at first reviled and ridiculed, and only accepted after enormous struggle.
The way these characters interact, and the way the plot develops, grips your attention. You want to know if Sterling will end up in jail. You want to know, dare I say it as a socialist whether Memphis will sell his diner at a profit.
The power of this play flows from the uncompromising way it defends the struggles of the 1960s. This is at a time when almost all the American establishment has subjected the fruits of the 1960s struggle--affirmative action and so on--to sustained ideological attack in order to draw attention away from the obscene fact that the top 1 percent in the US have greater combined wealth than the bottom 95 percent.
Moreover, this play blows a hole through the argument that black oppression is a product of black people's behaviour. As one character so eloquently says, 'Black people worked 100 years without a lunch break under slavery to build America.'
The playwright's venom, his hatred, his fire, is reserved for the racist system and the people who run it--not the victims.
It is extremely rare to come across a play that can make serious political points without using dialogue that jars against the ear. It is even rarer to come across a play that faithfully reflects real life--if you spend more than 30 minutes in any West Indian barbershop you will hear many of the arguments presented in this play.
This play has great acting, supported by a powerful plot, and an even stronger dialogue. Above all it is clear that the struggles in the 1960s need to be defended and extended. This play is a must see for every socialist anti-racist and student of black history.
Two Trains Running plays at the Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
Athol Fugard's Valley Song is a theatrical jewel whose glow persists long after the performance is over.
Fugard is an inveterate and passionate fighter against apartheid, writing and directing uncompromising attacks on the system like his sensational play of a few years back, Sizwe Banzi is Dead. Valley Song is a recent, post-apartheid production.
His plays use the political reality of South Africa as a backdrop to the impassioned human drama being enacted. Valley Song is cast in the same, mould, but is more tender, more intimate than previous plays. It is about a young coloured farm girl with a big dream. Or it is about a young black country with a big dream. The dream is about breaking the old crushing mould, now that she is growing up--or now that the country has got rid of apartheid.
But the old ways are not to be easily overcome. Her grandfather with whom she lives cannot readily oust the fears and habits of a lifetime, fears of a system that destroyed his daughter, and habits of submission to white supremacy which kept his wife resignedly scrubbing the white man's floors for decades, but at the same time gave her some security. These two ingrained attitudes from his past life prevent him understanding his beloved granddaughter's compelling dream of spreading her wings and flying off to Johannesburg where she will sing her way to fame and fortune.
The tension between the generations, between the old and the new, the soaring hopes and the difficulties of change, with even the new government appearing as an obstacle to progress, lends poignancy to what superficially seems a simple plot, yet is in reality a profound one.
The acting is superb, with Fugard himself playing the role of both the coloured grandfather and the white man who wants to buy up both the house and the land on which the grandfather's family has farmed for generations. The granddaughter, Esmeralda Bihl, is one of a vibrant new breed of South African actors and actresses who have been invigorating the South African stage since before the demise of apartheid.
Valley Song is a beautiful play, beautifully produced and acted.
Valley Song plays at the Royal Court London
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme is a remarkable play set in the First World War, but dealing with a number of topical themes about Northern Ireland. It tells the story of a handful of soldiers caught up in the bloody carnage of the Battle of the Somme in France in 1916. What they got from the empire, and what the empire got from them dominates the play. Frank McGuinness's play, first performed in 1985, plays at the Barbican Theatre, during March, then tours to Blackpool, Liverool, Malvern and Plymouth.
There are very few plays which depict the reality of life in factories. And there are fewer still as powerful as this one.
Unfortunately, however, that is not the main reason it has been much praised by the review pages of most of the posh papers.
The author was moved to write the play after her experiences on the picket line of workers in a big meat company and it is set in a midwest slaughterhouse. The main characters work there, their bodies scarred from the knives used to slash cattle carcasses, the sensation in their hands destroyed by vibrating machinery, their backs aching from incessant lifting and reaching, their sex lives ruined by physical strain and mental stress.
They have just lost a strike for a new contract, and now the only way any of them can see of improving their position is by punishing their bodies and minds still further in the search for promotion to a higher--and more dangerous-grade.
In the meantime, they engage in horseplay and banter, give vent to their sexual hangups, tell of the big and small oppressions that have led them to this hell hole. But even this may not be left to them for much longer. In the background their manager discusses whether to sack them or to make them work still harder so as to keep the firm ahead of its competitors.
Up to this point the play is realism in the best sense of the word--it attempts to tell what life is really like for the great majority of people in modern industrial societies in a way that is anathema to the 'modernising' political leaders, 'new realist' trade union leaders and 'postmodernist' theorists alike. But it attempts to do more than this--to show the historical continuity of working class experience and class struggle.
The author does this by introducing two ghostly characters--a new worker who, after getting a job by pretending to be a scab, is soon reciting from the Communist Manifesto, and a middle class man who purports to be the inventor of the first sausage machine. It transpires they have both been around before, recalling conflicts between bosses and workers of decades or even a century ago. They tell how they act out episode after episode of class struggle as they wander through history tied in permanent antagonism to each other, neither able to dispense with the other.
Unfortunately, however, it is not these strengths but certain weaknesses in the play that seem to have appealed to the critics.
Firstly, the symbolism in the play gets out of hand at points, verging on a mysticism that distracts you from the action as you wonder what it is all about. Secondly, and connected with this, there is an attempt to integrate certain feminist themes in a way that obfuscates rather than clarifies. And finally, the overall conclusion is that the class struggle always ends in disaster.
At one point, the 'worker ghost' complains to the 'boss ghost' about this. 'Can't we just once scratch a way through to a different world?' But the message of the play seems to be, 'No.'
All history may be the history of class struggle but the result is 'the mutual destruction of the contending classes'. Still, there are not many plays that even hint at any of the issues this one deals with, and that makes it well worth seeing.
Slaughter City plays at the Barbican, London