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Pullman Porter Blues
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2013-10-02

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Playwright: Cheryl L. West. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: 312-443-3800; www.goodmantheatre.org; $25-$75 . Runs through: Oct. 20

As microcosmic narrative locales go, way-stations are considerably less restrictive than prisons or hospitals, allowing the author a wider range of demographic representation while still invoking the claustrophobic ambience necessary to engender interpersonal tensions. Hotels and depots also hint at the romance of travel, albeit within boundaries safer than open-road excursions, and when the action incorporates scenes of actual transit, what you have is a universe rife with opportunities for adventure.

Of course, for the African-American service providers staffing the overnight trains that spanned America before the proliferation of air traffic, the railroad's promise was of a steady job—especially for those employed aboard the luxurious sleeper cars supplied by Chicago's Pullman company. Cheryl L. West's account of this chapter in economic history is viewed through the eyes of three generations of porters toiling on the Panama Limited ( a forerunner of the City of New Orleans route still operating to this day ).

Our departure date is June 22, 1937, the night that "brown bomber" Joe Louis would defeat Jim Braddock for the heavyweight title. Senior porter Monroe Sykes, whose own father sweated on the chain-gang that built the railroads, smuggles copies of The Defender into the segregated southern states, even as he cajoles his alcoholic white supervisor. Monroe's son, Sylvester, subverts the status quo through union agitation, while HIS son, Cephas, has recently left medical school for some bonding with his too-often-absent sires. Other transients include a teenage stowaway who secures the protection of the Sykes kinsmen, and a former Pullman maid turned Blues singer who is happy to sit in with the club-car band. When Sylvester begins to distribute pro-labor flyers, and Cephas befriends the itinerant waif, and the train leaves Cairo, bound for the deep South, we anticipate trouble.

West's panoramic view of her milieu exhibits the seductive contrivance of a Grand Hotel on wheels, its running time extended by musical interludes—some performed by the redoubtable E. Faye Butler in her role as the touring warbler, but mostly the kind of spontaneous vocalizing frequently heard among lonely men whose own voices are their only comfort. Under the deft direction of Chuck Smith, a skillfully matched cast brings depth and individuality to their archetypal characters in quantities to keep us spellbound right up to our saga's triumphant conclusion and to send us home wishing for a sequel.


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