Pullman Porter Blues Review - The Blues Never Felt So Good

Tosin Morohunfola, Larry Marshall, and Cleavant Derricks

There are no paying customers on stage in Cheryl L. West’s Pullman Porter Blues.  Instead they are relegated to the background and are sensed only by their sometime insensitivity as well as their almost infantile needs.  They ring the bell for service because they can, ask them to walk their children to sleep, and sometimes need them to wash away their own vomit.  To get by, the porters (to paraphrase one character) let others look at them but never actually let themselves be seen.  It is about time that a play be written about the Porters. 

Front and center in the Pullman Porter Blues are three generations of porters, all working together on a train headed to New Orleans from Chicago.  The patriarch of the family, Monroe Sykes (Larry Marshall in a role he owns like a comfortable pair of sneakers), takes pride in the work and is content to live by the rules imposed on him.  And there are a lot of rules, some almost funny (The more they think you don’t know the more your tips grow) and others not at all funny (Don’t ever, ever touch no white woman).  Although never one to directly challenge the world, he does work the edges to make some small, but meaningful differences.  His son, Sylvester Sykes (Cleavant Derricks) is the mostly angry and more obvious fighter who is relentlessly in pursuit of two dreams; seeing his son become a doctor and being part of a unionized work force.  Toshin Morohunfola plays the youngest Sykes (Cephas) who, unbeknownst to his father, is hoping to spend the summer as a porter.  Joining them on their journey down south is a not very nice conductor named Tex (Francis Guinan) and a scene stealing diva of a singer Sister Juba (played remarkably well by E. Faye Butler) who drinks them down like no tomorrow, takes no shit from anyone, and can belt out tunes with the best of them.  There is also Sister Juba’s band and, for good measure, a young lady hobo thrown in to make gooey eyes at Cephas.

Francis Guinan and Larry Marshall

Larry Marshall and E. Faye Butler

There is a whole lot to like here beginning with the story.  A family drama and a civil rights pro-union passion play, there is just enough fleshed out plot here to hang on all the good and bad time blues.  While subtlety may be in short demand, there is real character growth and even Tex is given just enough humanity to make him almost likeable at times.  Under director Chuck Smith’s attention, the pacing of the play feels just right and Riccardo Hernandez’s set design wonderfully recreates the intimacy and hectic movement of a luxury train line.  The music, by the way, is also top notch and would not at all be out of place in a rowdy blues bar.  Maybe in the end that is the highest compliment one could pay this production. 

For me though it all came together when Cephas and a young, white lady climb up on top the train to take a breather.  With projected clouds and stars whizzing by the two maybe lovers make time.  Below them the never ending demands of the train, and life, pile up.  It is also 1937 and a black man talking to a white woman risks losing his life.  But perched up on top the train, the two seem above all that.  For them and for us it is a nice reprieve from all that can be wrong in life.  Theater just does not get better than that.

Bottom Line:  Pullman Porter Blues is highly recommended.  The music alone is worth the price of entry and the story elevates the play to another level.  Dark, adult themes present in Act 2 do make this play unsuitable for younger children.  Pullman Porter Blues is playing through October 20 at the Goodman Theatre (170 N. Dearborn) with tickets ranging from $25 to $70.   For more information about this play or to purchase tickets click here.  For more information about other plays as well as reviews, go to Theater in Chicago.  Also, for those looking to recreate the Pullman Porter experience, the Old Town School of Folk Music is sponsoring rail trips down to New Orleans with related music programming on board.  The first trip leaves on October 8th.  Information about this trip can be found here

Anderson Edwards, Jmichael, Chic Street Man, and Senuwell L. Smith

Photo credit:  Liz Lauren


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