‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at Arena Stage

(Nate Watters/ ) - Playwright Cheryl L. West.

(Nate Watters/ ) - Playwright Cheryl L. West.

In Scene 5, the impeccably dressed Pullman porter smooths his starched white service jacket, white shirt and dark tie. He smiles a big, wide smile as he instructs a younger porter working on the Panama Limited Pullman Train, which is leaving Chicago’s Central Station on a historic night in 1937 and heading to the deep South:

“Now it’s gonna be a long night, but ev’ry porter required to stay looking fresh. Keep your uniform buttoned at all times. . . . Now remember, when the passengers. . . .

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“I got it, Pops,” the younger porter says. “Everything’s under control.”

“Just keep a smile on your face,” the older porter responds.

In “Pullman Porter Blues,” which opens Nov. 23 at Arena Stage, playwright Cheryl L. West, examines the history and the hardship behind those brilliant smiles.

In 1870, industrialist George Pullman began to hire former slaves to provide service on the soon-to-be famous luxury sleeping cars he had designed.

The “Pullman porters,” as they were known, became legendary for dispensing impeccable service to high-paying passengers — smiling all the while.

They smiled even as they stood on their feet sometimes for more than 20 hours, even as their already low pay was docked for any missing service items.

“There was a lot of story, a lot of pain and a lot of hardship behind those smiles,” West said.

The porters were required to work 400 hours each month or 11,000 miles, whichever came first. In 1926, porters were paid just $72.50 a month, plus tips. Out of that pay, they had to cover expenses including polish for their shoes, food on the road and lodging at segregated boarding houses.

The steady smile was a requirement listed in the 127 pages of Pullman porter rules.

Porters were to “provide service with a smile. To have passengers think they were most important,” West said. “It was important to satisfy your customer. That is what Pullman knew. But porters knew by smiling and providing impeccable service . . . the tip would be bigger.

“That is part of the duality. That is part of the smile,” West continued. “It says, ‘I’m here to serve you even if you are a jerk. I’m still going to smile.’ It meant a tip, and a tip provided for their families.”

West, who was born and raised in Chicago, remembers riding a Pullman train to Mississippi with her grandmother at age 4 or 5 (the trains ran until the late 1960s). She became fascinated by the porters’ smiles.

“I remember my grandmother flirting with them as they came down the aisle,” West recalled during an interview from Seattle, where the play premiered to enthusiastic reviews. “They seemed to know every person’s name.” With a child’s innocence, West decided then “that the porters must smile all the time because they were so happy to ride the train every day.”

When West, an acclaimed playwright — “Jar the Floor,” “Holiday Heart,” “Birdie Blue,” “Before It Hits Home” — sat down to write this new work, she was inspired by the stories she had heard from her great-grandfather, who worked on postal trains. She also remembered the smiles of the Pullman porters.

“Pullman Porter Blues” centers on three generations of porters — Monroe, Sylvester and Cephas Sykes — who are working together the night of Joe Louis’s heavyweight title bout.

Monroe has served on the train almost 50 years; his son, Sylvester, began working on the train at 19 and is almost 50 years old; and his son, Cephas, is on the train for his first run. Also on the train that night is a blues singer, Sister Juba, who is played at Arena by the powerhouse actress E. Faye Butler.

“Much of the play is about learning there are two different ways to approach the world,” director Lisa Peterson says. “Smile or no smile.”

Peterson explains that the oldest porter, Monroe, believes the smile is the best form of survival. He uses the smile for tips.

“His son, Sylvester, the middle generation, is almost the opposite,” Peterson said. “He is involved with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It is almost impossible for him to do the smile. . . . It is almost impossible for him to maintain the veneer.”

The younger porter, Peterson said, is spared this inner conflict. “He’s protected by father and grandfather through their hard work; they have created a middle-class life for this kid.”

Despite the hardships, the jobs were eagerly sought. The porters who were hired in the late 1800s “were men who had never been off the plantation,” West said. They had an opportunity to see the entire country and to make tips that would provide well for their families.

The porters also played key roles in shaping American history. Led by labor organizer and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, Pullman porters organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

“It took those men 12 years to get a union — to be recognized,” West said. In the meantime, “they lost jobs. Some were thrown off trains and beaten up.”

Even so, Pullman porters were key conduits of information from the North to the South. Porters were credited with influencing the Great Migration — the movement of thousands of blacks from the South to find jobs in the industrialized North.

“Porters were actually able to learn a lot from passengers on the train. They were invisible. They could listen and take information back into communities,” West said. “They would carry the newspaper, Chicago Defenders, to the Delta South, secretly bringing information that there were jobs up North. At times, those newspapers would go through 100 hands, until no ink was left on them.”

Onstage, Peterson wanted to capture such moments, when passengers weren’t looking. With the use of light and sound and movement, the set appears to rise and fall, as if the actors are moving on a train.

The play is infused with iconic blues songs. “I was particularly interested in looking for blues songs that refer to the railroad,” West said. “The blues was born on the track and carried South to North, and back again. And a lot of musicians did travel on the train. In the story, music is presented realistically,” played by Juba and her band as they pass the night in the lounge car, separated from the white passengers by a curtain.

The music melds with the sound effects of a moving train, Peterson said, “to create a musical soundscape.”

As the train descends into the South, the time moves closer and closer to the 8:15 p.m. start of the fight between Louis, “the Brown Bomber,” and James Braddock. Black people put their hope and pride in Louis. On the train, the characters listen to the fight through a transistor radio.

“We know, every colored man ever had any kinda dream done signed it over to Joe Louis tonight,” Monroe says.

Sylvester, who is fighting to improve working conditions for porters, wages a bet on the fight with the conductor.

“And when Joe Louis wins, you finally see Sylvester smile,” West said. “It is a real smile, not a courtesy smile. It is real.”

Pullman Porter Blues

Nov. 23 – Jan. 6, Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW, 202-488-3300.

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