History Meets Soul

History Meets Soul

Posted by: Cheritta Jenkins at 09/23/2013 04:00 PM

After seeing Cheryl West’s “Pullman Porter Blues”, the first word that comes to my mind is “soul”. The characters all had a certain pizzazz about them that took what could’ve been a fairly tedious play to an entirely different level. The play was essentially about three generations of men who have perfectly contrasting views of the world around them, but despite this, they learn to see each other as equals. The play takes on a number of controversial subjects including the status of women in society, the status of African-Americans, and even the hefty question of “What does it mean to be a man?” During the play, the audience is shifted from moments of uproarious laughter to the brink of tears. The play was inherently a piece of historical fiction founded in music and soul. 

 “Pullman Porter Blues” takes place on June 22nd, 1937, during a time of great turmoil, and yet great promise for African Americans. As the night goes on, secrets are revealed, and we see just how deep the Pullman trains have impacted the Sykes family. The oldest of the three, Monroe Sykes, has his focus totally fixed on providing for his family, no matter the cost. He sucks up to the conductor and does his best to follow most of the rules that are expected to be followed by a good Pullman porter. His son, Sylvester Sykes, seems to have an outlook that is the polar opposite of that of his father. He sees the injustices that his fellow porters have had to endure under the Pullman administration and takes action to stop it. He also does everything in his power to ensure that his son, Cephas Sykes, who is only about nineteen in this play, does not have to be a Pullman porter. Cephas, however, greatly admires his father and grandfather’s jobs and has dreamed of nothing else since as long as he can remember. Obviously, these personalities have no choice but to clash. These three men accompanied by the conductor, Tex, the charming friend of the Sykes family, Sister Juba, Lutie, and, of course, the band, combine to make this play oddly spectacular.

            The entire play takes place on the Panama Limited Pullman Train as it travels from Chicago to New Orleans. It was mostly divided between two train cars with brief scenes on the outsides of the cars. I liked how realistic the set was and it really added to the believability of the set. The background noise of the train moving and the stars in the sky made the reality of the theater completely disappear, and allowed the audience to be completely sucked into the play. The actors also portrayed their characters extremely well, especially Sister Juba and Cephas Sykes. Both of these actors had the ability to carry the essence of their characters into their voices and their actions, however mundane. The raspy, but musical voice of Sister Juba automatically demonstrated her fiery and masculine personality to the audience. Her entrance on top of her numerous suitcases also established her status as a bit of a diva. Another layer of Sister Juba’s personality was revealed in her interactions with both Sylvester and Lutie, which present her as a softer, more motherly version of herself. Cephas’ awkwardness was illustrated by his boyish movements and his unusually high voice. His voice also contributed to his air of naiveté. Together, these attributes conveyed that, like a small child, he needed a bit of guidance. Overall, all of the actors in the play blended together very well, and they did their characters justice.

            The conclusion of the play, in which the conductor is caught red-handed trying to sexually assault Lutie, and Monroe Sykes finally stands up to him is a bit incomplete. Though it is empowering, there are some loose strings. Did Sylvester and Sister Juba reunite? Does Cephas ever see Lutie again? There are too many questions. Though the acting and the production were absolutely FLAWLESS, the ending ruined the play. It felt as if I was sitting inside of a theater for roughly two hours for no reason. I had become encompassed in all of the characters’ problems only to be denied access to their denouements. I have to say, I was a bit upset. Nevertheless, despite the fragmentary ending, I enjoyed the play, and would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who’s looking to be entertained.

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