E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba, with Lamar Lofton as Shorty, in Pullman Porter Blues at Seattle Repertory Theatre, which comes to Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater November 23, 2012-January 6, 2013. Photo by Chris Bennion.
The show features a solid selection of old-time classic blues songs including a jazzy version of "Sweet Home Chicago," an amazing version of "Trouble In Mind," and Sister Juba bringing the house down with “Grievin Hearted Blues." The songs are all performed with a live band on stage with the theater audience becoming part of the show.
All the performances in this show are uniformly amazing. Butler had the audience in stitches and her powerful smoky voice wowed. The passion displayed by Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls, the TV show Sliders) just radiates off him. You can see how tired his character was and how much he truly hated his lot in life. The show does a fabulous job of showing all sides and providing a lot of layers to all three characters, and we get to see how they are viewed by each other.
For instance, on first blush you think Monroe is just a kiss-up, but then you see the deeper reasons for the way he is. He comes from a different time and appreciates how lucky he is to have a job and to be able to provide for his family. You find this out when he has a confrontation with the white train conductor who is actually jealous of the life that Monroe has been able to build while his is a disappointment. It is a real eye-opening moment. When young Cephas meets a white, dirty stowaway, Lutie (Emily Chisholm), you just know it’s not going to end well.
A show like this could easily have been depressing, but it is anything but. The two and half hours just fly by. You leave the theater feeling uplifted, like anything is possible, and even a little more appreciative of how far we have all come. The only minor quibble is that the show seems to end abruptly, like there was a lot more story to tell. Be on the lookout for Pullman Porter Blues; a production this good may be bound for an eventual run on Broadway.
Pullman Porter Blues is playing at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage in the Kreeger Theater through January 6, 2013.