“Pullman Porter Blues” pulls right at the heartstrings, making audiences cry with laughter and gasp in shock. Running until October 27, 2013 at the Goodman Theatre, this play by Cheryl L. West and directed by Chuck Smith is a phenomenal depiction of the lives of three generations of Pullman Porters: Monroe, Sylvester and Cephas Sykes. She does an excellent job portraying her message through the three Sykes men: Even though you might disagree with your family about certain aspects of life, when one member is threatened, everyone has each other’s back.
In the 1930s, George Pullman came up with the idea of hiring African-American men to work as porters on his trains. Porters did everything from serving customers in the dining car and making up the beds to running to fetch a bottle for a crying baby. They were underpaid as workers and forced to work 100 hours a week. West sets this play in June 22, 1937 on a Panama Limited Pullman Train. This time period was expressed through the wonderful set design and excellent costume design choices. The band on the stage had on time fitting suits and hats that did not look 2013. Another character wore an explosive, glittery dress that shouted 1930s. These costume choices made it clear that we were in the 1930s and not in modern times.
Monroe Sykes, played by Larry Marshall, is the oldest generation of the Sykes men. Monroe is so grateful to have a job that he becomes quite close to the conductor Tex, played by Francis Guinan. Sylvester Sykes, played by Cleavant Derricks, is Monroe’s son and unlike Monroe is not happy to have this job. He is the leader of the Brotherhood Union and he’s striving to get the Brotherhood to sit down with George Pullman and get the wages and hours changed. He and Monroe often bump heads and this occurs even more often when Sylvester’s son Cephas, played by Tosin Morohunfola, appears on the train working alongside them for a summer. Cephas is a college student who while working on the train meets stowaway Lutie, played by Claire Kander. They quickly form a friendship that is forbidden because Lutie is white and Cephas is black. Fiery blues singer Sister Juba, played by E. Faye Butler enters the stage and adds an exciting twist to the plot! Though her cursing is more than desired, she becomes a very likable character with a trouble past that involves Sylvester.
As soon as the curtain opened, the set design captivated this critic. A huge train car dominated the center stage and remained there the entire time. The set design crew did an amazing job creating that piece and adding walls and levels to make it more than just one car or one room. The beautiful back drop also moved as the day progressed, changing from a clear sunny day to a starry night sky.
All of the actors did an amazing job portraying their characters, making each and every scene seem real and genuine. The beautiful voice of E. Faye Butler brought the audience applause whenever she opened her mouth. All of the Sykes men as well had beautiful singing voices that blended beautifully in several harmonies. When Francis Guinan opened his mouth to begin singing, I doubted if he was going to live up to the bar of the Sykes men. But his voice was as strong and thick as the Sykes men. There was a scene where Sylvester and Sister Juba were arguing with one another. You could feel the emotion and tension in that scene as E. Fay and Cleavant Derricks got into each other’s faces and shouted their lines. This explosive line delivery made it a genuine argument between these two characters.
“Pullman Porter Blues” is a play that everyone should see. It inspires good values of honesty, following your own dreams or “laying your own track,” standing up for yourself and for the ones you love. The cursing in this play needs to be noted and for this reviewer it was a bit too much. But realize that without the cursing, it would have taken this play out of its time period. It would also take away from Sister Juba because without her cursing and slightly drunken ways, she wouldn’t be Sister Juba! If you love fun blues music, a true heartfelt story and enjoyable characters, “Pullman Porter Blues” is the play for you.