During the bygone era of glamorous passenger trains connecting major cities with small hamlets, those customers who could afford to board a sleeping car, would be greeted by a smiling attendant, one of an army of African American gentlemen charged with making their train journey as pleasant and safe as possible.
These gentlemen, the porters of the Pullman Company, were known for their efficiency and the service they gave to their employer and the passengers on trains crisscrossing the United States on the ribbons of tracks.
Seattle-based playwright Cheryl L. West’s early memory of the Pullman porters stuck with her.
“My first train ride at the age of five was both exhilarating and fascinating. I remember being utterly enamored with the train’s compulsively smiling Pullman porters. With the naiveté of the innocent, I remember concluding that the porters must smile all the time because they were so happy to ride the train all day, every day.”
She would later discover a very different reality behind their enigmatic smiles and personable demeanor. “Little did I know that the effusive smiling was one of many rules and that, in order to receive full pay, the ever-smiling Porters were required to work 400 hours per month or 11,000 miles—whichever occurred first— sometimes standing 20 hours straight while being humiliated similarly as they were on a slave plantation.”
West’s recollection of that train ride and the legacy of the men who served as porters for the Pullman Company comes together in the new play Pullman Porter Blues, now in its second leg of a joint world premiere. After opening last month at Seattle Repertory Theatre, the show comes to the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, through January 6.
During an evening in 1937, the Panama Limited leaves Chicago for New Orleans, the flagship run of the Illinois Central Railroad’s passenger lines. On the same night, June 27, James Braddock boxes against Joe Louis in a match to decide the heavy weight champion of the world. Interest is high in the Braddock/Louis fight, but for three generations of Pullman porters the night is about more than a title fight. Proud patriarch Monroe Sykes is joined by his son, the troubled Monroe. Monroe’s grandson, the young and ambitious Cephas has followed in the footsteps of his elders. On that 18 hour run of the Panama Limited, the porters face family strife and racial tensions.
Along with the personal story of a family in crisis, Pullman Porter Blues includes fifteen blues songs, serving as a soundtrack to the era. The music is integrated into the story, by way of the Panama Limited porters and passengers, such as Sister Juba.
Juba, a renowned blues singer, is a composite character, based on Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, among the most famous entertainers who made the blues their own. Appearing as Sister Juba, following the run in Seattle, is one of Washington’s favorite singing actresses: E. Faye Butler.
Juba performs numbers such as “The Panama Limited Blues,” and “Grievin’ Hearted Blues.” One of the songs Butler performs as the larger than life entertainer is coincidentally the title of the last play that brought her to Arena Stage: “Trouble in Mind.”
Butler is very clear on the kind of woman she gets to play in Pullman Porter Blues. “She’s earthy, ballsy, a take charge kind of woman. Her life is glamour – she loves the trappings of her fame and lives a luxurious lifestyle.”
Taking care of Sister Juba and the other characters on the Panama Limited is the youngest member of the Sykes family, Cephas. Warner Miller, an up-and-coming actor who has appeared in regional theatres and films such as “American Gangster,” plays Cephas.
Joining Miller, as his grandfather Monroe, is the Tony-nominated actor Larry Marshall. Marshall’s Broadway credits include the Houston Grand Opera revival of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, where he played Sportin’ Life and garnered his Tony nomination. He was Old Mister in the Broadway company of The Color Purple – the Musical, and made film appearances in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “The Cotton Club.”
Cleavant Derricks, who plays Sylvester Sykes, earned multiple awards for originating the role of James Thunder Early in the premiere of Dreamgirls – the Tony Award, Drama Desk, and L.A. Drama Circle. Derricks also starred in the final production directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, Big Deal, earning another Tony nomination.
The cast members of Pullman Porter Blues seem to be a mutual admiration society, starting with Derricks. “What a great ensemble we have, as actors the group is thick, rich and powerful. We have Larry Marshall, who plays my dad – he is so rich. I love E. Faye Butler and Warner, who plays my son. I have nothing but praise for the other cast members.”
Along with Butler, Derricks, Marshall, and Miller, the rest of the Seattle Rep cast and musicians have made the journey to the nation’s capitol. Emily Chisholm appears as as Lutie; Richard Ziman, Tex; Felicia Loud, Sister Juba understudy; James Patrick Hill, Twist; Jmichael, Keys; Lamar Lofton, Shorty; and Chic Street Man is Slick.
Butler echoed Derrick’s assessment of her fellow performers. “The entire cast is wonderful; I think they are all amazing. Having the live band onstage, and there are only nine of us onstage – it makes a wonderful experience.”
The production is directed by Lisa Peterson, returning to Arena Stage after directing The Quality of Mercy (2009) and The Rainmaker (2006). She is also known for co-creating An Iliad, written with Denis O’Hare.
Derricks said Peterson and West knew what they were looking for when assembling the company for Pullman Porter Blues. “They found a company of actors who onstage can be honest and real – the basics. With good writing, good directing and good acting, that’s real theatre. Take the spectacle away and that’s what’s left. We have that in this show.”
The heart of the story, said Derricks, deals with what fathers and son go through even today. “We have this piece, showing three generations of this family and how they deal with their situation and each other. White, black, child or adult – it hits you and addresses things about everybody.”
Butler and Derricks are also proud of the bigger story being told in Pullman Porter Blues – the impact of the generations of black men who dedicated their lives to working on the trains to make a better life for their families.
“These men, the porters, stood up for black families,” said Butler. “They changed the face of our culture. The Pullman porters had one of the most honorable jobs African Americans could have. That’s how we broke in and thanks to them many were able to move up the ladder.”
From the 1870s through the 1960s, tens of thousands of African American men served as sleeping-car porters, helping establish the black middle class. At the height of train travel in America, during the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest employer of African American men. Working 400 hours a month, porters earned better wages than most African Americans. “But the white conductors still made three times what porters made,” offered Butler. “They were paid $68 per week, at one time, but they still had to pay for food, sometimes their uniforms and were often treated poorly.”
A. Philip Randolph worked to change the poor treatment the train men received. In 1925, Randolph lead the establishment of the Brotherhood of Sleeping-Car Porters, establishing the first African American labor union in the United States. They were the first to sign a collective bargaining agreement with a major company.
But it would not be until August of 1937 – the year Pullman Porter Blues is set – that the Pullman Company would recognize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters as the official union of the porters who served with such dedication.
Derricks said he was proud to help tell the story of these men through the characters in Pullman Porter Blues. “To see this generation of men, employed during the Depression, but working to send their children to college, and to own homes and property, to be entrepreneurs, is significant.”
Butler agreed. “I think it’s important, telling good stories of African American men, the positive side of what got us where we are today. These men worked so their wives could stay home and raise their families, and they could bring her niceties, and travel.”
Closes January 6, 2013
Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW Washington, DC 20024
Tickets: $45 – $94 – subject to change
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Derricks said the story may surprise audience members who do not know the story. “This piece lends itself to, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that.’”
Butler said audiences should be prepared in other ways. “You will laugh, you will cry.”
Pullman Porter Blues may center around three train men and one night in their lives, but Derricks said it has something that speaks to us all. “Joy, pain, heartbreak – it’s all there. It talks about everybody.”
“And it all comes together on a train ride going south.”