Pullman Porter stories are legendary in Black communities along the northeast and southern corridors, and are particularly close to home for anyone with roots in South Side Chicago. The Pullman area is architecturally destinct, and the tales and exploits of the porters run through families, friends, loved ones like a locomotive.
Playwright Cheryl L. West captures the fastidiousness of the workers, the fascination of their legacy, and the racially tinged reality in this emotionally charged new work, produced by Arena Stage in conjunction with Seattle Repertory Theater.
The script shows what the Pullman experience meant to three generations of porters, exquisitely played by Larry Marshall as Grandfather Monroe Sykes, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester, his middle aged emotionally distant son, whose own young adult son Cephas, played by Warner Miller, is still finding his way in the white world.
The most endearing passages are the musical numbers when all three men share the stage with their tight harmonies and high-jinks steps. All three are versatile performers – Derricks originated the role of Jimmy Thunder Early for Dreamgirls on Broadway and can croon up a storm, Pops Marshall is a stage veteran with old school moves and style that still packs a punch, and Miller has an electric smile that matches his slide. The camaraderie between them is palpable, and when they hit their stride, they light up the room.
A musician in her own right is Emily Chisholm as stowaway Lutie who takes on the personae of a homeless vagabond, schooled in train-hopping by her “Pappy.” An illiterate, Lutie serves as a foil to the Harvard bound Cephas. Lutie knows her way around a moving locomotive, lurks in dark crevices, forages scraps to eat and helps herself to contents of luggage at will.
The characters are a seismic shift from the traditional roles since the young black man is bound for medical school with a father who is fueling (and funding) the aspirations, trying desperately to thrust his son into a higher echelon than he himself was ever able to achieve. As Lutie, Chisholm is a master harmonica player, well coached by Chic Street Man, the guitarist band member, and gets her chance to jam with the band—once she gets scrubbed up, deloused and all.
Last but not least, the cast features the inimitable E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba, the blues singer/entertainer on board. With a devil-may-care entrance reminiscent of Ma Rainey shaking her ample black bottom (and other gorgeous assets), Butler takes charge with commanding vocals, cussing, fussing, and even gets help stripping down to her skivvies (costume design by Constanza Romero.) Butler is a larger than life crowd pleaser and delivers moments of priceless entertainment.
The script exemplifies the full Pullman experience of providing home away from home comforts on the upper class sleeper trains. From my own personal recollection riding the trains in formative years, no one stood taller than a Pullman Porter in a dining car, crisp white cloth carefully draped over his arm, ready and prepared for service. The direction by Lisa Peterson relays the nuances of being on call for no matter what, and the script lifts the curtain to expose the lives and personalities of men trying to make a better way. A master stroke in relaying this message is how the spiritual “This Train is Bound for Glory, This Train,” is used as a metaphor for both the physical and spiritual journey. For the masses bound from the fields in the South to the grimy tenements in the North, the hope of working as a Pullman Porter on the trains was the ultimate escape.
The script covers these dynamics and a sizeable range of social issues, all which are insightful and socially relevant, but the topics are structurally challenging for the new script to handle. The second act is particularly encumbered with a spillover of explanatory reflections of racially charged incidents with hints of more to come. It’s all well and good to have a backstory, but, for example explaining the frosty relationship between Juba and Sylvester via revelations that emerge so fast and furiously in the second act seems more contrived to showcase societal ills rather thab being anchored in the couple’s reality.
Sociologists suggest evidence of still smoldering repository impacts of slavery where black men were powerless to protect their loved ones from being victimized throughout generations, and the forced miscegenation that resulted.
Aspects of that history are reflected in the couple’s strained relationship, but there’s not enough depth to support it theatrically. As Sister Juba, Butler comes across as a loud, over the top, tipsy show girl, or rather, very well- endowed show woman. Of course, her drinking may well have been a way to anesthetize herself from being a victim of sexual trauma, but nothing in her wide-legged, sexually aggressive take-charge approach in Act One hints of a woman still harboring wounds or needing protection in the second act.
Still, it’s that experience that serves as a platform for her assisting Lutie in distress, with yet more Americana stories of loss and survival that could be torn straight from the history books, but which don’t feel connected to the character’s true reality. Thus, the relationships are cobbled together to fit the sociological framework on which West is shining a light. It’s an important light with significant, still urgent, societal implications, so some leniency is warranted as she works through a new script to even it all out.
Pullman Porter Blues
Closes January 6, 2013
at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Washington, DC 20024
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $94 – $109
Tuesdays thru Sundays
The set design by Riccardo Hernandez includes a shining backdrop depicting a silver train streaking across the country, and the location is depicted by a large map scrolling to the top of the set representing the train’s geospatial positioning, to give an idea of the distance covered, the topography along the way, and the surrounding cities. The geographical representation underscores the reality of places like Effingham and the notorious riot-filled Cairo, along with the hushed dangers of crossing Mississippi on the way to New Orleans.
Pullman Porter Blues is an important new work, that should be appreciated for its potential to reflect the country’s passage through early Civil Rights struggles for equality and achievement. The references to A. Phillip Randolph and the early stages of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union, are effectively incorporated in a script that struggles to find its own place in depicting this legacy as well as the significance of the boxing match between Joe Louis, affectionately known as the Brown Bomber, and heavyweight champion James “Cinderella Man” Braddock in 1937.
Just as the outcome of that match was a crucial boost for the nation’s black cultural psyche, Pullman Porter Blues can increase awareness about how the rails represented opportunity and mobility steeped in blues for newly freed men and women, whose lives had lasting impact still being felt to this day.
Pullman Porter Blues . Written by Cheryl L. West . Directed by Lisa Peterson . Featuring E. Faye Butler, Larry Marshall, Cleavant Derricks, Warner Miller, Emily Chisholm, Richard Ziman, James Patrick Hill, Jmichael, Lamar Lofton and Chic Street Man. Set Designer: Riccardo Hernandez, Costume Designer: Constanza Romero, Lighting and Projection Designer: Alexander V. Nichols, Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg, Movement Staging Consultant: Sonia Dawkins, Stage Manager: Amber Dickerson and Assistant Stage Manager Mark Johnson. A co-production of Seattle Repertory Theatre and Arena Stage. Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
Jacqueline James . Afro
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
Trey Graham . Washington City Paper
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Justin Beland . BrightestYoungThings
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Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
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