Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Get onboard for Pullman Porter Blues
I was not going to review Pullman Porter Blues. I thought it would be nice for a change to go to a play and not have to be thinking about what I was going to write. We went to see it last Sunday on Gabi’s birthday.
How could I not at least say a word or two about this one? It’s a world premiere by a Seattle playwright, and it is outstanding.
The Seattle Repertory Theatre is known for producing plays with a strong social conscious like My Name is Rachel Corrie, and for presenting the black experience in plays such as August Wilson’s “Pittsburg Cycle” and for championing new writers such as Tarell Alvin McCraney, writer of The Brothers Size, and this play by Cheryl L. West, who has worked for TV and film and whose plays have garnered major awards, and who has called Seattle home since 1999.
West’s Pullman Porter Blues tells a story of Pullman train porters in the early part of the 20th century through the eyes of three generations of porters, a college student on his first job as a porter, his father and his grandfather, all of whom are working on the same train.
The Pullman Porters were all black. They were underpaid and overworked —by today’s standards not much better off than slaves, but in the early years being a porter was one of the best jobs a black man could aspire to. For their female compatriots, Pullman maids, the job was even harder. They were paid less and sexual abuse was common— up to and including rape, which was never reported. Theirs are the stories told in West’s musical through music and action by Sylvester the son (Cleavant Derricks ), Monroe the father and grandfather (Larry Marshall) and Cephas the son a.k.a. CC Rider (played by Warner Miller, who, incidentally, was also in The Brothers Size at the Rep).
Yes, Pullman Porter Blues is a musical, but not a traditional musical. It could easily be called a play with music. There is a small blues band with a female singer that is brought on the train to entertain the passengers, and they play a lot of swinging, toe-tapping blues music. E. Faye Butler as the singer, Sister Juba, belts out the blues with a powerful voice with hints of Billie Holliday and Aretha. The three leading men are also outstanding singers. Monroe in particular is an astounding singer and dancer. His little dance steps — nothing complex but done with magnificent rhythm and attitude — bring the house down.
Also outstanding in a supporting role is Emily Chisholm as Lutie Duggernut, the unwashed white stowaway who captures the hearts of audience members and plays a mean harp (harmonica).
Chisholm is a local actor and graduate of Cornish College.
Pullman Porter Blues plays the Bagley Wright Theater at the Rep through Oct. 28. If you can see only one musical this year, make it this one.