Seattle Repertory Theatre launched its 50th season with Cheryl West’s beautiful and poignant Pullman Porter Blues. As directed by Lisa Peterson, this is a bouncing musical with a touch of dark secrets and regret.
Seattle’s Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith was there to present a proclamation that October 3 was Seattle Repertory Theatre Day in honor of SRT’s 50th Anniversary. He mentioned that when he first came to Seattle as a young actor, SRT gave him one of his first acting jobs.
Pullman Porter Blues is the story of three generations of Sykes men, all Pullman Porters on the Panama Limited from Chicago to New Orleans and back again. The Pullman Company began in 1868, just three years after the Civil War. It also examines the exploitation of the black porters by the Pullman Company; the company knew that they could pay black ex-slaves less than they’d have to pay white men. The exploitation continued with the lack of respect shown to porters by the first class white customers and the conductors on the trains.
The Sykes family men all approached porter jobs differently. Monroe (Larry Marshall) has learned the ins and outs and the very particular rules and expectations of porters. Life experience is Monroe’s biggest asset. He is the soul of rectitude and obeisance to conductor Tex (Richard Ziman) and his cars’ first class white travelers.
Everything is carefully counted, so if anything is missing, liquor from the bar, a towel, washcloth, or linens taken by a passenger, the porter in charge of that car is charged for the missing items. They have to supply their own two uniforms, the dark blue one worn to assist passengers on and off the train and the white one for duty on the train. They even have to supply the shoe polish they use to clean passengers’ shoes.
They can be asked to clean up vomit from a sick or drunk passenger, to help mothers with babies by going to heating bottles and to even walk the baby so the other passengers can sleep. Worst of all, they are to suck up the insults and insulting racist names the passengers and Tex heap on them.
They spend their working lives serving and toadying to first class passengers and the train conductor. Conductors are the owners of a train in transit and Tex takes advantage of his position to drink from the bar that Cephus (Warner Miller) tends and to subject the porters to his slave owner mentality.
Grandfather Monroe, Dad to his son Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks), and Pops to his grandson Cephus were so convincing in showing the anguish in the cross purposes of each others’ aspirations.
Monroe had been a porter since his youth. He was part of the black exodus north in the years following the Civil War, seeking a better life than he could have in Mississippi. The south had very stringent laws about the “place” of black people and violent ways of punishing any infraction. Laying hands on any white person without their consent could lead to a lynching.
Sylvester had come on when he achieved adult status. Monroe and Sylvester have scrupulously worked and saved to allow Cephus to not have to be a porter.
Cephus, a student at the University of Chicago studying to be a doctor at his dad’s command, doesn’t want to be a doctor and has dropped out without telling his dad. So Pops has allowed him to be a porter trainee on this one trip only, to see what a porter does and has to put up with. Cephus is really excited to start the trip. Sylvester shows up for porter duty as the train is departing, surprising Pops and Cephus. He’s usually on the Chicago to the West Coast route.
Two women are passengers: Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler), a powerful black blues singer, and Lutie Duggernut (Emily Chisholm), a very good, harmonica-playing stowaway in the baggage car. Lutie is an abjectly poor, ignorant young woman who is used to crossing the country with her dad as train stowaways. She and her dad have parted ways recently and she’s doing her best to survive. When Cephus finds her in the baggage car, he’s moved to pity despite the strictest rules about stowaways. He sneaks a bottle of Coke (cokacola to Lutie) and a sandwich to her; she’s dirty, unkempt and ignorant of language usage. But as a white woman, she enjoys the privlidges accorded her in her dealings with the porters, even the generous Cephus.
Sister Juba on the other hand, is a successful night club blues singer. She and her four piece band are on their way to New Orleans. She’s drunk, using “colorful” language, and sipping from her flask as she is rolled onto the platform on a luggage cart. Monroe helps her to her room. Sister Juba, Sylvester and Monroe have history.
She sings enthusiastically and passionately with her band in the club car. This production has 13 songs, sung by Sister Juba and/or the porters and one by Tex (900 Miles). Every number is golden. A few that we particularly enjoyed included include Sweet Home Chicago, Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues (a showstopper, masterfully done by Sister Juba), and Hop Scop Blues.
There is some dancing all through the play, but Hop Scop Blues was phenomenal. Monroe, Sylvester and Cephus all were slipping, sliding, and gliding. I wish we could have bought a CD of the songs and a DVD of the production.
The set is beautiful, a creation of Riccardo Hernandez. All the action takes place in a station or on the train. There are cupboards built into the side walls of the front and storage places in the floor of the set that hold the porters’ second uniforms, tools, and Monroe’s so-called radical newspapers he spreads along the route, encouraging black men and women to take the trek north. Hernandez has created a replica of the side of a train car. When the porters and passengers get on, the action then shifts to the front of the stage with raising and lowering decor. Sister Juba’s room, the bar and the baggage car are represented by roll-on sets.
Costume designer Constanza Romero designed wonderful clothes for Sister Juba, from ample (they had to be ample because Sister Juba is ample) sexy, black underwear, a wrapper as a bathrobe was called then, to the flashy performance clothes she wears.
Lutie is dressed in filthy, torn rags at the beginning, and a man’s suit by the end. The four musicians James Patrick Hall on drums, Lamar Lofton on bass, Jmichael on piano, and Chick Street Man on guitar are all dressed in loudly patterned suits, appropriate for the era. Porters, of course, have the blue suit and a white jacket each.
Pullman Porter Blues at Seattle Repertory Theatre in Seattle Center runs until October 28 this year and is very much worth seeing, and hearing!
Ticket information is available at the box office at (206) 443-2222 or (877) 900-9285 or online at www.seattlerep.org. I’d recommend calling because I had some difficulties trying to buy a ticket for my student granddaughter online.
The next Seattle Rep production is The Glass Menagerie, running from October 26 through November 1. Future productions include Inspecting Carol, American Buffalo, Good People, and Boeing-Boeing. In conjunction with Seattle Theatre Group, the novel, movie and Broadway hit War Horse is being staged at the Paramount from February 13 through 24. I’d recommend getting tickets as soon as possible because that’s going to sellout.