Often I find that the productions in our area that interest me the most are ones that take a lesser-known story, concept, or theme, bring it to life with extraordinary actors, and entertain local audiences while educating them about historical events that continue to shape who we are as a nation today. Cheryl L. West’s Pullman Porter Blues, now playing at Arena Stage is one of the shows. This world premiere co-produced with Seattle Repertory Theatre (which staged the show in October 2012) is successful in nearly every way – from the story and acting to the production values, which enhance the telling of the already interesting and important story.
Pullman Porter Blues follows three generations on a train from the North to the South in 1937. All three men – a young man (Cephas, played by Warner Miller), his father (Sylvester, played by Cleavant Derricks, and his grandfather (Monroe, played by Larry Marshall) – work as porters on the train as employees of the Pullman Company, which was at the time one of the largest companies to employ African Americans. Each man is at a different career stage and has a different attitude toward his employment. As they interact with a white train conductor (the acerbic Richard Ziman), the African American musicians on the train (including a charismatic, but inebriated singer Sister Juba who is played to the hilt by E. Faye Butler), and a young, white, female stowaway (the heartbreaking Lutie Duggernut, played by Emily Chisolm, who perfectly balances comedy with drama), they all learn important lessons about the precarious place of African Americans in this country during that tumultuous time period. At the same time, they are forced to make some difficult and risky decisions to maintain their sense of dignity, respect for themselves, and humanity.
Under the direction of Lisa Peterson, West’s well-written script serves as a foundation for the actors to explore three-dimensional people and their difficult life situations. While I would quibble that West treats those situations (particularly the ones the porters face) in such a way that only skims the surface, she does reveal some of the complex social issues and attitudes that the porters had to deal with on a daily basis as a result of the racial climate of the day. I personally would have liked to seen more exploration of how/why these situations emerged on the trains in particular, but understand that such an in-depth treatment of the “separate but equal” notion might have further muddled the story at hand.
As the porters, Miller, Derricks, and Marshall give extraordinarily layered performances. As the youngest, Miller brings a sense of youthful determination and stubbornness to the character of Cephas which is tempered by his educated understanding of racial tensions in America. Derricks is appropriately angry and volatile as Sylvester and Marshall is wise and profound as the elder who just wants to do right for his family. When the three men express their joys and sorrow in song with numbers like “This Train” and “Hezekiah’s Song,” their voices are powerful and filled with emotion. Songs appropriately take the place of spoken dialogue when words aren’t sufficient to express their predicament.
The standout, tour-de-force performance, however, belongs to E. Faye Butler. The fearless performer, who seemingly never gives less than 110% as she graces our area stages, is equally heartbreaking and comedic as the singer on the train who’s seen it all and won’t let anyone tell her what to do or think. This colorful character’s singing moments are the singular highlight of the show thanks to Butler’s strong vocals, comfortable stage presence, and stunning song interpretation skills. From the time we are introduced to her character (in the raucous number “Wild Woman Don’t Have the Blues”) to the final moments of the play (in the duet with Sylvester “Grievin’ Hearted Blues”), we see the complexities of Sister Juba. She may be wild and uncontrolled at first glance, but thanks to Butler’s fine portrayal we also learn what’s lurking beneath the surface.
The 13 musical numbers (including one reprise) are purposefully staged by Sonia Dawkins and are essential ingredients for the success of this piece. Although this is less of a musical and more ‘play with music,’ the songs bring even more life to the story at hand and further establish time/place, and the characters’ feelings. JMichael (musical director, who also serves as a pianist for the train’s band) brings out the best of the cast’s musical talents, including the other members of the band (James Patrick Hill on drums, Chic Street Man on guitar, and Lamar Lofton on bass). Playing known and lesser-known tunes with style, finesse, and vigor, they make the audience members feel like they are on the train too.
The other production values, though minimal, also enhance the telling of the story. Riccardo Hernandez captures the 1930s-era trains quite well in his set design, which has both realistic and theatrical elements. Constanza Romero’s costumes further illuminate the socio-economic status of each of the characters and, in the case of the musicians (including Sister Juba), play up their colorful personalities. Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting and projection design further establishes time and place as does Leon Rothenberg’s clean and purposeful sound design.
I urge audience members to hop the train to Arena Stage and experience Pullman Porter Blues!
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.
Pullman Porter Blues plays through January 6, 2013 at Arena Stage 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.