Song & Dance Aside, “Pullman Porter Blues” Disappoints
The story of the Pullman porters, and especially A. Philip Randolph’s work to establish the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters is one of the great unsung sagas of American history. In Seattle Rep‘s Pullman Porter Blues (through October 28; tickets) Cheryl L. West attempts to tell this story in broad strokes, with occasional dabs of specificity. The result is a smattering of compelling moments in a farrago of song, dance, and overwrought circumstance.
The show opens promisingly. Alexander V. Nichols’ projections provide an instantly recognizable scene that connects large themes and proves to be a linchpin in the plot. Sadly the design achievements, including Riccardo Hernandez’s magnificent and clever set, outstrip those of the writing.
Set on June 22, 1937, the story follows young Cephas Sykes (Warner Miller), a third-generation porter. It is Cephas’s first day of on-the-job training with his grandfather, going down the river from Chicago toward New Orleans, reversing the Great Northern Migration. That date was also the night that Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship and almost precisely two months before the Pullman Company and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters signed their first contract agreement. The coincidences and confluences of events only thicken from there.
Also on board the train is an all-black blues band and their lead singer, Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler) whom, it is revealed, has intimate connections with the Pullman Company and the Sykes men. Many white passengers are spoken of but only one is seen: Lutie (Emily Chisholm), a stowaway of a hobo. As rare as a black blues band might be on board the all-Pullman Panama Limited, a hobo hopping on and hiding in the baggage car is only slightly less ludicrous than by-the-book Cephas agreeing to hide her.
The cast is strong overall, though Larry Marshall (as Cephas’s grandfather, Monroe) was not the only actor who seemed to struggle with his lines on opening night. Butler, Miller, and Cleavant Derricks (as Cephas’s father, Sylvester) are excellent in their roles with Butler and Derricks’ charisma carrying the audience through many rough patches.
The finest moments are in song and dance. Sonia Dawkins’ choreography ranges from blues to Motown with the Sykes men stepping like The Temptations. These dances perfectly express the tension of suppressed emotion that could drive the drama of this show. In their official capacity the porters keep their movements tight, synchronized and small. On big emotional moments, bodies are freed and feet and arms come alive.
The band is great—not only in their music but also with the provisional characters and handful of lines they’ve been given to invite them into the plot. Vague attempts to justify their presence (among the show’s many inconsistencies in verisimilitude of plot and circumstance) draw attention to such flaws but cannot mute the audience response. The house rocks to popular favorites like “Sweet Home Chicago” and powerhouse numbers like “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.” The single most effective moment of the show may be “Trouble in Mind,” which is made to work both dramatically and artistically in service to the show as a whole.
Chisholm also contributes to the sound. Under the tutelage of Chic Street Man, she will soon be giving that other harmonica-playing Seattle actor, Charles Leggett, a run for his money. However Chisholm gets the short end of the stick in the acting. She and Richard Ziman get saddled with two-dimensional roles that all but beggar belief. Ziman is the almost unwaveringly villainous conductor, Tex, and Chisholm is a hobo-hooker with a heart of gold, a racist mouth, and an open mind.
Stylistically this script is all over the map. At times the show is a documentary, at others it’s a domestic melodrama, and too often it resembles a saccharine Disney-style underdog tale. What it seems to want most to be is a Civil Rights-era epic. A sobering and satisfying ending gives you hope for the work, but then a touch of the mystical makes you cringe. Had she opted to speak of the societal through the personal, rather than the reverse, West’s script might have been more successful. As it is, Pullman Porter Blues amounts to a frustrating and disappointing evening.