Washington, DC’s Arena Stage may not have as big of a reputation as other famous local theaters, but under Artistic Director Molly Smith, the small theater is rapidly making a name for itself. In partnership with the Seattle Repertory Theatre comes what is sure to be a hit: Pullman Porter Blues.
(L-R) Larry Marshall as Monroe, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester, and Warner Miller as Cephas 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 Pullman Company took advantage of the early days of train travel by turning the experience into a luxury way to travel for rich white people. It was a company in many ways ahead of its time as it gave newly emancipated slaves jobs.
This rousing, crowd-pleasing production tells the story of a family of black porters who worked on the Pullman railroad line in 1937. The family is headed up by its patriarch Monroe (Larry Marshall) who gets his grandson Cephas (Warner Miller) a summer job on the train. Cephas is ecstatic to be on his “own” and out of school. However his father Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) is ashamed of being someone’s “servant” and wants better for his son. The relationship among the three is a tense one made all the more tense by the appearance of the soulful, bitter Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler).
Playwright Cheryl L. West focuses the story on the night Joe Lewis won the heavyweight boxing world championship. The show is a slice of lost American history. The records of the time of Pullman porters were lost during the famous Chicago fire.
Director Lisa Peterson does an amazing job with this production. While fairly minimalist, the set design is gorgeous. We get to see the smoke come up as the train leaves the station, and the use of a simple image of railroad tracks against the curtain backdrop at the beginning and end of the production leaves a lasting impression.
When the band on the train plays, the theater audience becomes a part of the show, and it is impossible not to get caught up in the jubilant celebration when Lewis wins the fight. In that moment you really understand what this victory must have felt like to the black people of the day. He really was their great hope and gave people the feeling that anything could be done.
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.