Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

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 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.

I suggested to playwright West if the play moves to Broadway (which I think it should) about adding porters who could dance in the Alvin Ailey tradition to accompany some of the blues' numbers. 

Prior to the performance, a proclamation was read on behalf of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray proclaiming November 29, 2012 to December 29, 2012 as "Pullman Porter Awareness Month".

Part of the play incorporates the porters listening on the radio to the historic Joe Louis heavyweight championship fight in 1937 when he beat James Braddock for the title. West introduced the daugher of Joe Louis who was in the opening night audience.

In the lobby, there is a nice collection of artifacts on display about the Pullman Porters and a short video about the production.  These are nice touches which enhance a theater-goers' experience.

PULLMAN PORTER BLUES features 12 classic blues songs. One of which is entitled "Trouble in Mind" sung by E. Faye Butler which I found coincidental  since Butler starred in the play of the same name by Alice Childress which I've seen at the Arena Stage, Center Stage, and the Yale Rep. 

PULLMAN PORTER BLUES plays until January 6, 2013

Also performing at the Arena Stage at the same time on the Fichandler Stage is the musical MY FAIR LADY also running until January 6, 2013.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 202-488-3300 or visiting

What a double-header one could do...MY FAIR LADY at a matinee and PULLMAN PORTER BLUES at night.

Featured on Stage Door

Shoutouts, Classes, and More from Your Favorite Broadway Stars

Related Articles View More Washington, DC Stories

From This Author Charles Shubow