The rich, fascinating, bone-chilling story of the Pullman porter experience begins when the aesthetically arresting train doors magically open by themselves in “Pullman Porter Blues.” Then, we are taken on a confusing, but ultimately satisfying ride through the lives of three generations of Pullman porters, a racist railroad conductor, a drunken singer, and a hopeful homeless woman.
The entire play takes place on a beautifully crafted train, with all sorts of doors opening in different places. Inside the train, there is a lounge area with a bar, where the drunken-diva Sister Juba often plays the blues with her backup band, despite the gripes from the racist train conductor, Tex. There are two dividers in the train, one resembling a passenger bedroom, and another resembling a linen-closet where the optimistic vagabond, Lutie hides from Tex and anyone else who will throw her off of train while she’s on her way to find somebody who will accept her. The linen closet area also has a small ladder, leading up to the roof of the train, where Lutie and the youngest Sykes boy, Cephas, a college student looking to make some extra cash for the summer, share the only moment in the play where anyone feels remotely comfortable being themselves in front of somebody else. The story takes place in the course of a night, and as the night progresses, the light shifts to resemble the clanging brightness of suppertime, and the dull dimness of 3 a.m.
The six diverse leads of the show, combined with the four somewhat homogenous band members, formed an attractive, in-sync, for the most part powerful ensemble. The Sykes men sang with the passion of hard work, not the typical “I have a BFA in musical theater from Tisch, watch me belt on this fancy stage” approach. The vivacious E. Faye Butler portrayed the drunken Sister Juba, she was the lightest spot of the show, and that perfect intoxicated person that you just can’t get enough of. (You know, your aunt that gets wasted at the family Christmas parties, and won’t stop dancing the cha-cha and buying you strawberry daiquiris)
The confusing portion of this show was actually following the plot. The actors were passionate, but at the same time, I felt like the storyline wasn’t communicated as clearly. The characters were all very strong personalities, each with their unique goals. These tended to conflict with each other and made it hard to understand the relationships that weren’t given to us. The relationship between Sister Juba and Sylvester Sykes was rather foggy, although it seemed like that was one of the main plot points.
The ever-talented Claire Kander made the role of the vagabond Lutie so much more dynamic than the script would read. She was fervent in the way she talked about her dreams and goals, and absolutely seemed to believe in them. Kander made her uneducated way of speaking charming through her passionate knowledge of her migrating philosophy, but at the same time she was caring, and listened to Cephus and his goals. She developed a clear relationship with Cephus, and that made her character more dimensional so that ultimately, by the end of the play, she is the one that you’re rooting for.
Director Chuck Smith’s overall representation of this show was pretty good. Smith created a beautiful set, and though it wasn’t overtly flashy, the elaborate detail combined with some of the blurred plot lines took away from the play. At the same time though, he captured the history, and the pain that these porters went through every day, and made the struggle of the porters come to life. The most mystifying, chilling part of this show though is the railroad conductor, Tex. Tex was not only racist, but he was violent, perverted, and vile. His body language with Monroe Sykes was that of a best friend, yet he constantly manipulated Monroe to turn his back on his family. Those bone-chilling qualities in Tex are what really brought the history and story of the Pullman porters to life… It created an actual experience, something that cannot be taught in a text book.