In an era where the evolution of an African American middle-class society gradually emerged, Pullman Porters continued to experience roaring prejudice and harsh renounce while serving the riders on the Pullman Trains. Director Chuck Smith brilliantly depicted such drama through the eyes of three related generations. Each family member presented endurance, strength, and courage against the “traditional” view of the African American—all musically entwined with their well-renowned, flavorful culture of the blues.
The production begins with three men chanting the ominous “Hezekiah’s Song,” alluring the curious audience. The setting then shifts on a happier note to a brightly-lit train, where Cephas Sykes, 19, declares his excitement as a rookie porter on the Panama Limited. His grandfather, Monroe Sykes, greatly admires Cephas’ potential and reminds the novice of proper etiquette.
Although the flamboyant arrival of Sister Juba as well as the zestful jazz band became quite entertaining on the first day of the job for Cephas, he quickly realizes that this is hard work. The endless labor and peculiar surprises overwhelm the perks. Cephas, who was not accustomed to displaying subservient qualities, remains on harsh terms with the Caucasian conductor. The unexpected presence of Cephas’ father, Sylvester Sykes, adds yet another layer of confusion and stress. Sylvester is recruiting his fellow porters to join the Union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, but the father is surprised to discover his college son scurrying away with various briefcases.
Arguments arise among all family members as they discuss what Cephas should do — go to work or school. These talks frustrate their difficult boss, Conductor Tex. Only the phrase “Like father, like son” can be proposed when Sylvester demonstrates insolent conduct towards Tex. Not only does Sylvester test Tex’s patience but also offers a bet, smugly proclaiming that boxer Joe Louis will win the intense boxing battle against champion Jim Braddock. These tensions are optimistically alleviated as Sister Juba belts out her catchy tunes despite Tex’s pleas of silence.
During this spontaneous train ride, Cephas discovers a female vagrant, Lutie, shrouded by the dark shadows of the caboose. Although he fearfully refuses to speak to Lutie let alone allow her on the train, the exuberant young woman convinces Cephas that she will do no harm. The two gradually become friends as they unload their troubles and sorrows.
The Sykes regain a burst of hope and joy when they hear African American Joe Louis defeats Jim Braddock. The jubilation incorporated with the “Joe Louis Blues” contrasts with the stereotypical glumness associated with the genre. The euphoria drastically declines in act two as rivalry engages.
In the closing, the Sykes men openly profess “Hezekiah’s Song” a final time, emphasizing the closure of parallelism in a powerful ending.
Although the production is set in a former era, it never fails to instill shock and sympathy within the youthful audience. Imagery is beautifully manipulated to convey such emotions. The combination of vivid flashbacks and the Sykes men’s relentless struggles help visualize the suppressed past.
The contrast of lights and darkness vacillated throughout the production, which adds to the predicaments and felicity of the train ride. This occurs during the transitions from Sister Juba’s cadenced jamboree to the tranquil sounds of Lutie’s harmonica during a star-lit twilight. E. Faye Butler’s and Francis Guinan’s portrayals of their eccentric characters should also be commended. Without Butler’s constant witty zingers and beautiful voice as well as Guinan’s deep roots of racism, the production would not have created such a dramatic impact. With such attributes, “Pullman Porter Blues” demonstrates the graphic accounts of relations between disparate races while encouraging the audience to remember the past and “lay their own tracks”.