BWW Reviews: PULLMAN PORTER BLUES at Arena Stage - Hop on Board
What are the ingredients for success in the theater? You start with a clever and historic play written byCheryl L. West (just had its World Premiere at the Seattle Reportory Theatre), build a clever set that shows you are on a train from Chicago to New Orleans (by Riccardo Hernandez), offer outlandish at times outfits and spot on uniforms (by Costume Designer Constanza Romero), have terrific lighting and projection designs by Alexander V Nichols), superb sound design by Leon Rothenberg, great musical staging by Sonia Dawkins, have an established and successful Director in Lisa Peterson (who I remember so well for many plays at Center Stage), brilliant casting by Alan Filderman who combines two established Broadway veterans in Cleavant Derricks and Larry Marshall along with the incomporable E. Faye Butler, add a star in the making in Warner Miller, a rising star in Emily Chisholm, a great character actor in Richard Ziman, and a blues quartet who can play and act at the same time: JMichael (on keybards and music director, Lamar Lofton (Shorty on Bass) Chic Street Man (Slick on Guitar, and finally James Patrick Hill (Twist/Drums).
Then you mix them up and before you know it...you have a HIT!!! And that is what I label PULLMAN PORTER BLUES.
This is a play for everyone. It is filled with a history about the beginnings of the civil rights movement combined with a story of three generations of men who all have an amazing and successful work ethic, and add a touch of music (I wish there was more) with a little bit of dancing.
PULLMAN PORTER BLUES has success written all over it. The opening night audience was cheering loudly at the curtain call and the applause was well deserved.
I never once looked at my watch. I wanted for the play to just keep on going like the train from Chicago to New Orleans.
Playwright West's play was inspired by her grandfather's work on postal trains. It focuses on the African-American men (there were also women porters) who were porters on the Pullman Car that traveled cross-country in elegant settings. It was industrialist George Pullman who thought to hire former slaves (in 1870) and they were hence named "Pullman porters".
DeNeen L. Brown in her Washington Post article (Sunday, November 18, 2012) revealed that porters stood on their feet sometimes for more than 20 hours. "The porters were required to work 400 hours each month or ride 11,000 miles, whichever came first. In 1926, porters were paid just $72.50 a month plus tips."
It was a hard life but a respected profession.
The play works well in the Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre.
And when E. Faye Butler's character (Sister Juba) arrives on stage via a luggage cart, it's like Carlotta arriving on the back of an elephant in the musical hit PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Juba is a blues singer and is not embarrassed if her underclothes happen to be exposed. The audience was rolling in laughter at her characterization. The part had to made for her.
The thrust of the story concerns young Cephas, who is on summer break from the University of Chicago studying to be a doctor, has his grandfather Monroe teaching him the tools of the trade. Then by chance Cephas' father Sylvester shows up on the same train due to a change of schedule and is not amused to see his college son working as a porter. There is quite a relationship between grandfather, son, and grandson.
Sylvester also has a past with Sister Juba which young Cephas had no knowledge about.
Derricks has a great theater history. He originated the role of James Thunder Early in the Broadway musical DREAMGIRLS which landed him a Tony Award and coincidentally, DREAMGIRLS is now at the Signature Theatre across the Potomac in a must-see production. Derricks told me he hopes to get a chance to see it.