Directed by Chuck Smith
Music Direction by Jmichael
At the Goodman Theatre, Chicago
“The Blues help you say what you feel
and feel what you can’t say.”
-Monroe from Pullman Porter Blues
Historic day for the African-American Pullman porters celebrated with rousing blues numbers
It is June 22, 1937 and the Panama Limited is leaving Chicago for its 20 hour journey to New Orleans. The luxurious Pullman passenger cars are manned by three generations of Sykes’ including Monroe (Larry Marshall), his son, Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) and his son, Cephas (Tosin Morohumfola). This African-American family have a long history as Pullman porters. Besides the preparation for their trip South, the porters anticipate the heavy weight championship boxing match between James Braddock and the African-American “Brown Bomber ” Joe Louis to be held in Chicago that night. Monroe laments that he and the train must leave Chicago before Louis can become the champ.
The Pullman Porter Blues is a “play with music” that contains the best of each element. It is a toe-tapping blues oriented show with 13 – 30’s blues numbers played with gusto by the onstage band and sung with deeply felt emotions by Marshall, Derricks , and Morohumfola. When the drunken feisty Sister Juba (E. Faya Butler) sings the blues, the emotional level gets intense. As a blues songfest, Pullman Porter Blues delivers; as a dramatic play, it works effectively as it presents the work ethic and plight of the Pullman porters.
We see how each, the grandfather, the son, and the newbie porter deal with the heavy workload and the humiliation contained as Pullman porters. Monroe seems to be subservient to the conductor, Tex (Francis Guinan) as his survival method while he quietly distributes the Chicago Defender newspaper ( that encouraged Black migration to the North) throughout the train’s Southern stops. Sylvester, Monroe’s son, while a most efficient porter, is an active uncover union organized bent on establishing a union of all the Black porters working for Pullman. He pushes his son, Cephas to become a doctor but the youngster, with the help of his grandfather Monroe, wants to work as a porter during his summer vacation from college. Tension arises when Sylvester unexpectedly joins the Panama Limited on the trip to New Orleans. He doesn’t know that Cephas is a trainee porter and he is surprised to see Sister Juba on the train. He has history with the former porter maid now a blues singer.
This well plotted drama deftly covers the porters world where low wages, long hours and strict work ethic as well as the constant fear permeated the porters job. We see the pride and dedication the porter’s exhibit as they became the bedrock of the emerging Black middle class in the 1930’s. We learn of the painful experiences of the Sykes as well as the agony Sister Juba suffered as a Pullman maid. Add Cephas’ almost disastrous encounter with the white trash female hobo stowaway, Lubie (Claire Kander) and we experience the personal life decisions of each of the main characters as they confront their demons as each finds out what their character makeup really is. Their stories are compelling and hopeful despite their traumas. We understand the role that blues music plays in their lives.
The union of the blues with the dramatic story produces a wonderful theatrical event. From the evocative Pullman car set (by Riccardo Hernandez) to the vivid video projections (by Mike Tutaj), Pullman Porter Blues captures the spirit and deep humanity of the porters. We hear (and feel) their pain through the blues and we celebrate their triumphs. Larry Marchall and E. Faye Butler lead a capable cast of actors/singers. Come take a ride on the Pullman car -it’ll be an unforgettable experience.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: September 22, 2013
For more info checkout the Pullman Porter Blues page at theatreinchicago.com
At the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800,www.goodmantheatre.org, tickets $25 – $75, Tuesdays thru Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 & 7:30 pm, matinees on Thursdays & Saturdays at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with intermission, through October 20, 2013