Pullman Porter Blues

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Editorial Review

REVIEW: 'Pullman Porter Blues'
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Like a team of theatrical rescue workers, three seasoned pros do everything in their power to aid Arena Stage’s “Pullman Porter Blues.” But though they provide welcome verve, their considerable skills prove no match for the heavy-handedness of Cheryl L. West’s soapy script about the struggles of Depression-era African American railroad valets.

Cleavant Derricks, E. Faye Butler and Larry Marshall are the mainstays of director Lisa Peterson’s handsome production, whose gleaming metal cutout of a Pullman coach, by set designer Riccardo Hernandez, dominates the stage of the Kreeger Theater. The look augurs an evening of sophistication, an expectation encouraged by the entrance of members of a sultry blues band and a performance of the venerable spiritual “This Train” by Marshall and company.

Suaveness, though, arrives and recedes in the Kreeger, carried in with the four-man band and the dozen numbers it plays over the course of 21 / 2 hours -- and is whisked away again in the meandering and unbecomingly mean-spirited narrative West spins. Recounting the travails of the porters on the segregated rail lines could be supple fodder for theater, even if sidestepping the cliches of a story of quiet workplace joys amid detestable racial barriers is no easy task.

West’s play, first performed at Seattle Repertory Theatre, doesn’t avoid the pitfalls. She stacks the emotional deck with a sentimental plot that suggests audiences can’t abide nuance. If it’s not enough that the train’s staff members have to remind us again and again how ungrateful the unseen white passengers are, West supplies a drunk, racist, sexually violent white conductor (Richard Ziman) so cartoonishly evil he should be twirling a mustache while lashing a damsel to the railroad tracks. (A second Caucasian character, a stowaway played by Emily Chisholm, is a tad more sympathetic, if you don’t count the vile epithet she throws in the face of Butler’s Sister Juba.)

You wait out the rather haphazard plot entanglements, the jokes and solemn pronouncements by the broadly sketched characters to get to the songs, all of which are handled with an assured showmanship, owing in part to Sonia Dawkins’s polished musical staging. Marshall, as an elder porter and head of a family of Pullman employees, moves with debonair grace. And Butler, the flinty Aunt Eller in Arena’s smash revival of “Oklahoma!” as well as the veteran actress of last year’s backstage drama “Trouble in Mind,” here brings a crowd-pleasing carnality to the role of a brassy singer of the blues.

A quarter of a century ago, Derricks won a Tony for his portrayal of a washed-up legend of soul in the original production of “Dreamgirls” (which happens to be playing in a terrific revival across the river at Signature Theatre). It’s a pleasure seeing him onstage again, this time imbuing a character with far more magnetism than it might otherwise radiate.

Derricks’s Sylvester is the son of Marshall’s Monroe and the father of Warner Miller’s Cephas, three generations who, in the summer of 1937, find themselves working side by side on a Panama Limited from Chicago to New Orleans. To the chagrin of Monroe, a kindly company man, and Sylvester, an organizer for the porters’ union, Cephas wavers over whether to return for a sophomore year at the University of Chicago.

The generational struggle might be a sleek and elegant vehicle for the songs. But the story is weighted down with time-sucking subplots. Although it’s set on the day boxer Joe Louis took the heavyweight title from Jim “Cinderella Man” Braddock,” the victory is never translated into quite the watershed moment for the porters that one anticipates. Too many other events get in the way: the disclosing of the murky romantic past between Sylvester and Juba, the friendship of Cephas and the backward stowaway, the ham-handed scheming by Ziman’s Tex to undermine the union man. For a play set on tracks, the story is rolled out without a lot of sense of where it’s going.

Constanza Romero’s flashy costumes for Juba match the character for flair, and Hernandez comes up with some crafty set pieces, among them, a sleeping compartment that rises out of the stage floor. If only the “Blues” they embroider offered a more satisfying itinerary.

PREVIEW: Working on the railroad, all the Jim Crow days
By DeNeen L. Brown
Tuesday, November 13, 2012

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. . . .”

“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.”