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Theater review: A ride through black history
BY SHEILA WICKOUSKI
FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
“Pullman Porter Blues” is set on June 22, 1937, the night of the historic Joe Louis/James Braddock championship bout. This emotionally charged night is described by Langston Hughes, in his autobiography, as one in which “No one else in the United States has ever had such an effect on Negro emotions—or on mine. I marched and cheered and yelled and cried, too.”
It is a night when the Panama Limited heads south from Chicago to New Orleans, with a family of porters who will battle out their generational conflicts.
The history behind Pullman porters is rich. In one of the first occupations opened to freed blacks after the Civil War, the porters conducted their work with dignity under demeaning conditions of work and pay. They saved money for homes and their children’s education, building the foundation of the black middle class. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and civil rights leader Benjamin Mayes both worked as Pullman porters.
The train was part of the historic migration north for half a million blacks between 1915 and 1919. Porters who did grueling work on the luxury trains were part of this event, as they carried the Chicago Defender, the pre-eminent black newspaper, to the South to spread news of opportunities in Northern cities.
Playwright Cheryl L. West was inspired to write this story by her grandfather’s tales of working on the postal trains, as well as her first train ride as a young girl. The dozen classic blues numbers in the show, starting with “This Train,” are ones familiar at that time, music to keep the spirit high even when life looked the darkest.
Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks), the patriarch of the Sykes family, remembers as a child seeing his father as part of a chain gang, hammering the rails of this route. He also brings newspapers to throw along the way—when the conductor is not looking—to spread the word of the possibilities of life beyond the Deep South. This night he has brought his grandson, Cephas (Warner Miller), as a trainee porter. Cephas has recently dropped out of college during his first year, a fact unknown to his father, Monroe (Larry Marshall).
Monroe is the man in the middle of these generations, caught between his father’s outwardly subservient ways and his son’s youthful impetuosity in giving up an education. His passionate efforts to recruit members for the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African–American union established in America, is not appreciated by either his family or the white conductor, Tex (Richard Ziman). Tex constantly threatens to have him fired, even as he bemoans his own lonely situation in “900 Miles.”
Sister Juba, portrayed by E. Faye Butler, boards the train with four band members, and the action starts. Once a porter maid, she is now a blues singer, perfectly matched to classics such as “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and “Trouble in Mind.” Emily Chisholm as Lutie Duggernut, a stowaway with a gift for the harmonica, completes the cast.
Bottom line: This is one train ride of hardships and heartaches you will never forget. These unknown workers with a hope for a better future are heroes just as “The Brown Bomber” is in the boxing ring.
Sheila Wickouski, a former Fredericksburg resident, is a freelance reviewer for The Free Lance–Star.