I have written a number of theater reviews, and have attended even more live shows, but I have never before been to an opening night that featured representatives from the City Council to give a show official recognition and even declare a month honoring it. But Thursday, November 29, 2012, just that happened. DC City Councilman Phil Mendelson and Mayor Vincent Gray declared November 29 through December 29th “Pullman Porter Awareness Month,” to honor the history and legacy of train porters and they were inspired to do so by Pullman Porter Blues, a powerful testimony to the wealth of historical legacy this show draws on.
Playwright Cheryl West and director Lisa Peterson have given us a show revolving around three generations of “Pullman Men,” the Grandfather Monroe (a dignified Larry Marshall who surprises and delights with sprightly dance moves even at his advanced age), the angry Union Leader Sylvester (a fiery turn by Cleavant Derricks), and grandson Cephas (Warner Miller), a college boy who against his father’s wishes seeks a summer job with Pullman.
The action takes place on the Pamela Limited line from Chicago to New Orleans in June, 1937, during the historic boxing bout between Joe Louis and the Cinderella Man. (As an interesting aside, Joe Louis’s daughter was in the audience!) Family tensions and racial ones both flare up during this 900 mile-something journey. While the Pullman Line’s reputation for luxury depended on the stellar service of their all-black porters, the porters themselves were second-class citizens—and not allowed to forget it. While Monroe, a slave’s son with over fifty years experience on the rails has learned to reconcile himself to injustice, his son Sylvester is in full-on rebellion mode, and trying to organize the Union Brotherhood. Cephas is the youngest and most naïve; he hasn’t learned to fear white folks yet, and as Monroe points out, that’s a danger. In the meantime Sylvester is clear that his dream is for Cephas to attend medical school—he wants his son to be better than the service industry.
And yet, for all that Sylvester curses Pullman and the work they do, he’s also scrupulously clean and industrious in fulfilling his duties. All the Porters wear their jackets with pride. The script works best when illustrating the family dynamics and life on the train; it falters when it veers into melodrama introduced by the rail hopping tramp Lutie (Emily Chisholm). Nothing against Chisholm but her character and story arc aren’t strictly necessary and derail (pun intended) the show’s broader grandeur. However, Chisholm does deliver some mean playing on the harmonica.
Far more welcome is the larger than life boozy blues singer Sister Juba. E. Faye Butler in the role is absolutely marvelous; from the moment we first see her appear in a fur coat riding a luggage cart as if it’s a throne, she has us wrapped around her finger.
The set is simply gorgeous; a magnificent display of polished woods, bronzes, golds, antique chandeliers, all designed to showcase the opulence of a bygone Gilded Age, and beautiful costumes thanks to Constanza Romero. The music is smoking. In the end, despite an occasional misstep Pullman Porter Blues is lively entertaining spectacle that illuminates an important piece of history.
Photos by Chris Bennion
Pullman Porter Blues
Directed by Lisa Peterson
A Co-Production with the Seattle Repertory Theatre
1101 Sixth Street, SW