A little history, a little family drama, a whole lotta blues. Those are the building blocks in Cheryl West's compelling drama with music, Pullman Porter Blues. This production originated at Seattle Repertory Theatre earlier this fall and Washington, D.C. audiences who are looking for a thrilling evening of theater should definitely go to Arena Stage. Pullman Porter Blues will leave you with not only the songs in your heart, but perhaps a better understanding of the incredible lives of the men and women who worked for generations for the Pullman Company.
It's the train from Chicago to New Orleans, June 22, 1937 when Joe Louis had his controversial title bout with James J. Braddock. Three generations of the Sykes family are working the train. The incredible Sister Juba and her Band are providing the entertainment. There are conflicts between the generations, with the white conductor and a potentially dangerous stow-a-way. By the time the evening is through we have traveled to the segregated south and the consequences of present day events bring up horrible memories from the past. While the resolution is unclear, by not tying up the story in a neat little package Pullman Porter Blues leaves the audience to ponder the lessons of the past.
Ms. West has written a compelling tale and her choice of music to emphasize the plot is inspired. Director Lisa Peterson has shaped the story in such a way that the audience is taken along on a journey that is anything but sentimental. The casting is masterful. Sister Juba's band provides the accompaniment and James Patrick Hill, Chick Street Man, Lamar Lofton and JMichael are simply incredible musicians. Richard Ziman as the white conductor Tex starts out as a genial if naturally a racist character of the time period. As the journey goes on and alcohol and the outcome of the Louis/Braddock fight fuels his rage Mr. Ziman compelling changes into a menacing threat. As Lutie the stow-a-way, Emily Chisholm appears at first to be stereotypical poor white trash. Yet, when she expresses herself through her harmonica, her soul burns with fire.
E. Faye Butler's Sister Juba dominates the proceedings nearly overwhelming the focus of the play. She sings with raw emotions and her dependence on the bottle masks a horror story of a past that the character would love to bury forever, but circumstances force her to relive. It is a performance that will be recognized come Helen Hayes award season.
Sister Juba nearly dominates the play, but Ms. West and Ms. Peterson manage to keep the main story on the three generations of the Sykes family. Grandfather, father and son represent not just the generations of a family, but the generations of struggle within the African American community. Yet their story is a universal one, for within most families there are always the older generations that strive to create a better world for the generations to come and a younger generation that rebels against their plans. Grandfather Sylvester, played with charm and spirit by Cleavant Derricks shows the most deference to the white conductor, Tex. However, Sylvester represents those whose seeming compliance with the status quo quietly find ways to rebel. Father Monroe played with fire by Larry Marshall is the radical. Monroe risks organizing for the union which could lead to losing his job or his life. Both men have made sacrifices so that grandson Cephas can go to college and break the cycle of the Pullman Porter life. Naturally, Warner Miller's Cephas struggles to break free from the family plan. Mr. Miller is vibrant and in some ways naive to the ways of the world. It is the lessons of the real world which Cephas brings on himself on his rookie ride on the rails that brings disaster to this family.
While the drama becomes intense the audience is left with questions and an ambivalent ending. The music leaves us that there might still be hope.
Pullman Porter Blues is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater through January 6, 2013. For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.arenastage.org.