Cleavant Derricks draws ‘Pullman Porter’ inspiration from real life
By Moira McCormick September 18, 2013 4:50PM
Francis Guinan (left) as Tex the Conductor and Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester Sykes in “Pullman Porter Blues” at the Goodman Theatre. | LIZ LAUREN PHOTO
‘Pullman Porter Blues,’ Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, $25-$86. (312) 443.3800; GoodmanTheatre.org
‘Pullman porter jobs were what really set up middle-class black America, and they started here [at the Pullman Company] in Chicago,” observed CleavantDerricks, , co-starring in “Pullman Porter Blues,” which runs Sept. 24 through Oct. 20 at the Goodman Theatre. The West Coast-based Broadway veteran (who also spent five years as a star of sci-fi TV series “Sliders”) was taking a lunch break earlier this month ata tony Loop restaurant, from rehearsals for the music-steeped drama by native Chicagoan Cheryl L. West.
“Pullman Porter Blues” explores the bonds and tensions among three generations of African-American men who serve wealthy white passengers aboard the sleeping car of the Panama Limited Pullman train, and features an onstage four-piece band to accompany the actors performing more than dozen blues numbers. Action unfolds over a single day in June 1937, when history would be made by the world heavyweight championship of boxer Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis.
Derricks, 64, was last in Chicago “over 30 years ago,” auditioning the Los Angeles company of “Dreamgirls” — the Supremes-inspired hit Broadway musical that had earned him both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award as best actor (for the role of James “Thunder” Early, which he originated). “I’ve been falling in love with your city,” Derricks remarked over Southwestern chicken salad and iced tea, while noting constructive changes that director Chuck Smith (a Chicagoan himself, in his 20th year at Goodman) has made to “Pullman Porter Blues.” It debuted a year ago, with Derricks in the cast, at Seattle Repertory Theatre, before moving to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage.
“Our first director did a wonderful job,” Derricks said, “but we [actors] were always looking for ways to bring different levels to our characters — and she didn’t want that. She’d say, ‘You’ve got to remember: it’s one day on the train. I want your moments carried all the way through.’ This time around, Chuck is saying, ‘I want to see colors, differences in different moments.’… He’s an actor’s director.”
“The fact is, Cleavant knows his role so well, all I’m doing is pointing him in a [fresh] direction,” said Smith, adding, “He has such a wonderful singing voice.”
Derricks comes by his musical chops naturally, as the son of groundbreaking gospel composer and performer Rev. Cleavant Derricks. It’s his history with his own son (the eldest of his four children), 27-year old Cleavant III, that Derricks says informs his portrayal of “Pullman Porter Blues” dad Sylvester Sykes. Sylvester, a second-generation Pullman porter who chafes at the job’s servile aspect and is trying to unionize, is furious that his porter father Monroe (Tony Award-nominee Larry Marshall) brings aboard Sylvester’s son Cephas (Tosin Morohunfola), a med-school prospect.
“My own oldest is a gifted kid, but thought he was too bright to study,” Derricks recalled. “He loved debating and arguing, and a lot of times we’d clash; that’s where I’m getting my fire from.” Now, he adds, Cleavant III is in law school, and “after all those years of being combative, I told him, ‘I see it’s perfect for you: you question everything.’”
Moira McMormick is a Sun-Times freelance writer.