All words: Justin Beland
The early 20th century saw a rapid increase in the quality of train travel, largely due to the unprecedented level of luxury that the Pullman Car & Manufacturing Company built into their trains. Sleeping cars, a relatively new concept and one perfected by Pullman, featured spotless plush upholstery, carpets, shades, and all the amenities one could want. In the mid-1920s Pullman boasted more than 9,800 railcars that traversed all corners of the country. Pullman also employed nearly 12,000 porters, the majority of whom were African-American. George Pullman himself sought out former slaves to work his cars, knowing he could pay them considerably less than white workers while still receiving an exceptional level of service.
Pullman Porter Blues, the wonderful new production currently enjoying its east coast debut at Arena Stage, tells the story of three generations of Pullman porters, all on the same train heading from Chicago to New Orleans, on the same night, June 22, 1937. Monroe Sykes (Larry Marshall) is the eldest, a Pullman lifer who’s happy to continue a high level of service, keep his mouth shut, and keep the peace. His son Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks, who sci-fi fans will remember as Rembrandt “Crying Man” Brown on the show Sliders) holds no such devotion to the company and is working behind the scenes to organize the group that would eventually become the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the nation’s first African American unions. The youngest Sykes, Cephas (Warner Miller), is attending medical school at the University of Chicago, but would much rather follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and work the trains. Monroe is fine with Cephas’ choice; Sylvester couldn’t be more against it.
Numerous other characters populate the train as well, such as Tex (Richard Ziman), the drunken racist conductor who takes pleasure in asserting his authority, and Lutie (Emily Chisholm), a young stowaway who takes a shine to Cephas and plays a mean harmonica. And of course there’s the fiery, frequently intoxicated Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler), a larger-than-life Ma Rainey-type who entertains the passengers and, as we learn, has a longstanding but mysterious connection to the two elder Sykes men. Juba’s band, made up of real-life blues musicians such as Seattle’s Chic Street Man, are stellar and worth the price of admission on their own. They embody the unseen character of the play – the blues. Unofficially born around the same time as the Pullman company, the blues had their place on the trains as well – legendary bluesmen Big Bill Broonzy and Son House were reportedly Pullman porters early in their lives. Pullman Porter Blues is peppered with fantastic blues numbers, and all the actors more than hold their own with the brilliant backing band.
The other unseen character is legendary boxer Joe Louis, who, as the train speeds south, is back in Chicago about to take on James J. “Cinderella Man” Braddock. The porters have a small financial and considerably higher personal stake in a Brown Bomber victory – as Monroe notes, “every colored man ever had any kind of dream done signed it over to Joe Louis tonight.” When Louis eventually (spoiler alert) wins the fight the celebration is infectious and the first act ends with an absolutely superb rendition of the 1935 Carl Martin tune “Joe Louis Blues.”
The second act features less music and more story but the musical sacrifice is with purpose. Trying to find the tie between Juba and the Sykes family is like trying to solve an elaborate puzzle that, when revealed, presents the most heart-stopping and dramatic moments of the production. Butler and Derricks are flawless in the scene as they are throughout the entire production. Marshall is brilliant as well, switching from the compliant porter who constantly needs to satiate Tex’s drunken ego to a calm, loving father figure to both Cephas and Juba, and again to a fine singer and dancer as he uses the same fantastic dancing skills that he showed while playing Cab Calloway in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1984 film The Cotton Club.
In Pullman Porter Blues, writer Cheryl L. West has created a mix of drama, comedy, and fantastic music that’s as potent as whatever Sister Juba keeps sipping from her flask. Elements of the plot become untangled while others knot up, all while Sister Juba and the band cranks out some of the best blues music this side of Chicago. It’ll keep you guessing and dancing, which are about the best two things you can do in a theater.