Theatre Information

Arena Stage Pullman Porter Blues

By • Dec 2nd, 2012 • Category: Reviews, Washington DC
Pullman Porter Blues by Cheryl L. West
Arena Stage
Kreeger Theatre, Washington DC
Through January 6th, 2013
2:30 with intermission
$64-$94; discounts for those 30 and under, groups, families, military, police and firefighters
Reviewed November 29th, 2012

First of all, there are some truly sensational performances on display here. Second of all, the play itself is a mishmash, a conglomeration of organs in search of an organism.

First things first: The cast of Pullman Porter Blues pulls off a dozen wonderful musical numbers. They sing, they dance, they radiate vitality whether the material is gospel (“This Train”), lyrical ballad (“Sweet Home Chicago”), up tempo novelty dance (“Hop Scop Blues”), poignant lament (“Trouble in Mind”) or screaming soul (“Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues”). 

The play’s setting is the Panama Limited, a train traveling from Chicago to New Orleans. The year is 1938. Ten performers — an ensemble of a singer/dancer/musician/actors — belt out traditional tunes from way back when. E. Faye Butler plays Sister Juba, a blues diva. Butler’s got pipes. Her expressive capacities range from inward exploration to outward explosion. And, she favors us with stunning intervals of shaking and shimmying. 

Cleavant Derricks, Warner Miller and Larry Marshall play, respectively, a father, a son and a grandfather. All three are exceptional showmen (indeed, Marshall is exceptionally exceptional). When the spotlights hit them during some of their song-and-dance numbers the three men are radiant previews of things to come from Motown. Even Richard Ziman, who plays a stock bad guy, has a touching solitary meditative moment as he sings “900 Miles.”

Poor Ziman — he bears a conspicuous burden of stereotype and caricature. He even stands out in a cast of characters composed mostly of stereotypes and caricatures. Ziman plays the white conductor of the Panama Limited. His role calls to mind the prototypical demon of America’s collective nightmare of racial horror: Simon Legree of the 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The book was, by the way, immediately turned into a stage melodrama and went on to become the most produced play, ever, in American stage history — a record that still stands. 

As he interacts with the father/son/grandfather trio of Pullman porters, Ziman takes on most of the standard equipment allotted to your regulation melodrama villain: drunk, sexual predator, sadist, bully, petty, craven, whiner, bigoted and, worst of all, not at all a gentleman when it comes to paying a gambling debt. 

Ooops. Sorry. Mentioning the reneged wager might be a spoiler. But playwright Cheryl L. West sets up her story, themes and characters in a way that, unless you are asleep, you see events coming along way before they occur. Anyway: the bet. This is the night of an epic heavyweight boxing championship fight. It’s Joe Louis (black) vs. James Braddock (white). The train staffers are listening to the blow-by-blow on a radio. When Louis wins, his feat is a great morale booster for the black porters (one of whom bet on Louis) and a real downer for the bigoted, vile conductor (who, of course, bet on Braddock). And so …. 

Which brings us to the mishmash nature of Pullman Porter Blues. Playwright West has an interest in history. So we get a good deal of exposition about Pullman porters, who were the aristocrats of the black working class in the early 20th Century. We learn about one of the protagonist’s efforts as an organizer of what was to become America’s first black union, the Sleeping Car Porters of America. We also learn about the grandfather’s father, a slave laborer forced to lay the very tracks on which the Panama Limited runs. We also learn about the Chicago Defender newspaper’s role as a pioneering force in African American liberation and empowerment. 

Mixed in with the history material is a rape theme involving both the queenly diva and a lowly white “box car floozy” who manages to stow away in the Pullman baggage car.

Mixed in with all that is a vague whiff of magic realism involving a mysterious intervention by the long dead slave great-grandfather.

Mixed in with that is a fraught love-gone-wrong story laden with reproach and remorse.

Mixed in with that is a psycho-social display lacerating and unproductive male behavior. Nothing new there. West goes over ground explored a couple of decades ago by the late August Wilson, whose Pittsburgh Cycle of plays thoroughly dramatized the subject of conflicted and conflictive black male roles as seen in each decade of the 20th Century.

And speaking of August Wilson, his play-with-music Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom featured a black blues diva of the 1920s. One can’t help comparing Ma Rainey with Pullman Porter. As for the music part, West’s play is the equal of, or better than, Wilson’s. But when it comes to fashioning unique characters, a lively story and themes that emerge in an unforced way as characters and story develop, well …. Suffice it to say that Wilson is way ahead of most playwrights when it comes to art and craftsmanship. Way, way ahead. Let it be noted, however, that West has a bright way with pithy wisecracks. Her raucous and uninhibited diva, Sister Juba, tells a man that he looks “as sharp as a mosquito’s peter.” And further, “that smile of yours could make a praying woman do wrong.” 

Now here’s a concatenation coincidences: August Wilson lived in Seattle. His plays were written at his own slow, deliberate pace. When, by his reckoning, they were ready for the stage they received their premieres or early performances at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Cheryl West lives in Seattle. Pullman Porter Blues was commissioned by the Seattle Rep to inaugurate its 50th season — which is did in October. Furthermore — when the Rep moved into its splendid new theater in 1983 it commissioned a play with music, “The Ballad of Soapy Smith” (nice tunes, shaky playcrafting).

Conclusion: there is something about a commission with a strict deadline that can work against skillful creation. In the case of Pullman Porter Blues, the play doesn’t conclude. It just stops abruptly, as if someone yelled “Time’s up, Cheryl.”

Photo Gallery

Larry Marshall as Monroe, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester, and Warner Miller as Cephas The cast
Larry Marshall as Monroe, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester, and Warner Miller as Cephas
The cast
Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester and Larry Marshall as Monroe Larry Marshall as Monroe, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester and Warner Miller as Cephas
Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester and Larry Marshall as Monroe
Larry Marshall as Monroe, Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester and Warner Miller as Cephas
Emily Chisholm as Lutie E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba, with Lamar Lofton as Shorty
Emily Chisholm as Lutie
E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba, with Lamar Lofton as Shorty
Larry Marshall as Monroe
Larry Marshall as Monroe

Photos by Chris Bennion

Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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