Theater Review: ‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at Arena Stage

The cast of ‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

A good piece of theatre does two things for its audience, entertain and educate. Cheryl L. West’s world premiere play Pullman Porter Blues, which is currently playing at Arena Stage in co-production with Seattle Rep, highly succeeds on both fronts.

E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba in ‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Kevin Rosinbum.

With a cast that features some veterans of the stage and some newer actors, we are taken on a journey back to 1937 aboard the Panama Limited Pullman Train. Along the way we learn what it was like for the Pullman Porters and how the train conductors of that time were on the take and on the make.  You say, “you’ve been educated, so where’s the entertainment?”  I’m getting to that now. As we all know the 30s was a very rich period musically; so Pullman Porter Blues utilizes 13 musical numbers as performed by a four piece band with the knockout vocal stylings of E. Faye Butler.

With its superior cast and production values, Pullman Porter Blues is one of those plays that totally satisfies.

The main story deals with three generations of the Sykes family, all of whom are Pullman Porters. We follow the three men on the Panama Limited from Chicago to New Orleans on the night of the Joe Louis/James Braddock championship fight.

Emily Chisholm as Lutie in ‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

Going from oldest to youngest we have Monroe (Larry Marshall) who has been doing the job for the longest. Monroe knows he has to make nice with the conductors if he wants to keep his job. Remember these men were paid unthinkably low rates for countless hours of work, but Monroe saved enough money to buy a house and raise a family.  Next we have Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) who is transferred from another train and comes with a reputation of being a troublemaker and wanting to unionize the Pullman Porters. Lastly, we have Cephas (Warner Miller) the grandson of Monroe and son of Sylvester who is studying to be a doctor but who goes to work on the train after Monroe gets him the job for the summer. He is very enthused to be there, and his grandfather makes sure he knows all of the rules of the trade; for one wrong move could get him fired. Sylvester is not happy with this as he wants something better for his son and makes this known on more than one occasion.

Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler), a blues singer, used to work on one of these trains. In fact, Sylvester and she used to be romantically involved. Then one night a train conductor took advantage of her while Sylvester stood by and let it happen. She is now back on the train with her four piece band, which features J Michael as Keys (Piano/Musical Director), Lamar Lofton as Shorty (Bass), James Patrick Hill as Twist (Drums) and Chic Street Man as Slick (Guitar). Sister Juba is what you would call “a high maintenance” type of passenger and more often than not is under the influence of alcohol.

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I mentioned that Pullman Porter Blues shows us the way the train conductors were on the take and on the make. Tex (Richard Ziman) is a prime example of what one of these guys was like. His credo is “OK, if you don’t do what I say, I’ll have you reported.” This attitude unfortunately ran rampant during the 30s. Their treatment of woman was not much better.

One thing that was never allowed during this time period was an interracial relationship. Lutie (Emily Chisholm) is a stowaway on the train who Cephas finds in the baggage car. I am not going to reveal what happens, but you can imagine it’s not pretty.

All of the performances are top notch. To say that E. Faye Butler is a force of nature is not doing her justice. Butler holds the audience in the palm of her hand from her first entrance to her last exit. While she is big and brash in her singing, she has a subtle side for the dramatic scenes.

Larry Marshall’s Monroe shows the range of this fine performer. Whether he is singing with his resonant baritone or performing a scene with a fellow actor, Larry Marshall shows us why he has been consistently employed in the theatre for so long.

Cleavant Derricks’s Sylvester is seething with anger without being overdone. Derricks could have been all one level but he knows when to pull back and when to explode.

Warner Miller’s Cephas tells me that we are going to be seeing much more of him in the future.  The scenes between Marshall and Miller are a prime example of the advantages of theatre bringing generations of performers together.  They were fantastic.

Warner Miller as Cephas, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester and Larry Marshall as Monroe in ‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

As the slimy conductor Tex Richard Ziman had me saying one thing. “Boy, I hope he gets his.” I’m not going to say whether or not it happens, but that was my thought. It takes real talent to play a character like this and Ziman possesses all the right gifts and skills.

As Lutie, Emily Chisholm gives us a heartbreaking portrayal of a young girl who wants something better for herself and who just wants happiness. The scenes between Chisholm and Miller are quite touching.

I’d be remiss if I did not mention the four piece band that, besides backing Butler’s singing, provides the musical underscore for the evening.  The musicianship of these four guys is impeccable, and they really know how to make the train swing.

Director Lisa Peterson has directed Cheryl L. West’s play at a good pace and never lets the script get over sentimental or preachy, which it very easily could have become.

West’s script is funny and touching and very informative. It’s always nice to learn about a piece of history that is not often discussed, and West does us a big service with this script.

The musical staging is by Sonia Dawkins and it serves the musical numbers nicely, adding just the right amount of movement.  Remember, this is a play with music so the songs are just a small part of the show and not the main focus.

Physical elements match the high quality of the performing company. Riccardo Hernandez has sliced a train car in half so you are inside the car with the back wall of the stage being the outside of the train. He then turns us around when he has to and by using a hydraulic rail that raises and lowers at the front of the stage you are now riding outside the car. The design is inventive and looks great under Alexander V. Nichols’s lighting design.

If you are in need of a non-holiday theatre event, I strongly suggest that you put Pullman Porter Blues on your list of shows to see. With its superior cast and production values, Pullman Porter Blues is one of those plays that totally satisfies. No matter what you are looking for in a night of theatre, this play delivers tenfold.

Running Time: Two Hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

Pullman Porter Blues plays through January 6, 2013 at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater at the Mead Center for American Theater – 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC.  For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300, or purchase them online.

About Elliot Lanes

Elliot Lanes has been a professional stage manager/sound designer/board op for over 20 years. After relocating to Washington, DC from the New York City area and marrying the girl of his dreams Jennifer Perry, he has been privileged to work on productions at Theatre J, Synetic, Prince George's Community College and Studio Theater to name a few. He has contributed designs for many shows in the last three Capital Fringe Festivals, two of which garnered critical raves. He is also the creator of MD Theatre Guide's highly successful 'A Quick 5' column.