“Pullman Porter Blues” rolls along with predictable purpose
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic September 24, 2013 9:31PM
Larry Marshall (from left), Tosin Morohunfola and Cleavant Derricks are three generations of train porters at odds with one another in “Pullman Porter Blues.”
‘PULLMAN PORTER BLUES’
When: Through Oct. 20
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets : $25-$75
Info: (312) 443-3800;
Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
Updated: September 25, 2013 8:27AM
“Pullman Porter Blues,” Cheryl L. West’s play-with-music, receiving a lavish production at the Goodman Theatre, deals with a fascinating, once-iconic, but little-known subculture of African-American life. A work of grand ambition, it spins a tale of racism, labor organizing and the generational tensions between black fathers and sons. Sadly, it unfolds in the most predictable paint-by-number ways, with every character and event serving a highly constructed purpose.
For nearly a century — beginning in the years after the Civil War, and on into the early 1960s — the job of the highly disciplined, smartly uniformed, rulebook-driven Pullman porter helped create a black middle class in this country. It was far from idyllic employment, as West’s play suggests. But during the Depression era it was a plum job. And at a time when railroads were the dominant means of travel, and the Pullman service was truly luxurious, the perceived status and opportunities associated with the job were unique and undeniable even if the Pullman operation also was a microcosm of much that was wrong in society at large.
West has set her play on June 22, 1937, the symbol-laden night of the world heavyweight championship when Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” beat the reigning white champ. And she puts us on the Panama Limited Pullman Train, from Chicago to New Orleans, with designer Riccardo Hernandez’s absolutely dazzling photo-realist train set as the show’s unmitigated star.
Three generations of men from the Sykes family are working as Pullman porters. Monroe (Larry Marshall) is the deferential but savvy eminence grise who rebels in his own quiet way by circulating “The Chicago Defender outside Chicago. His middle-aged son, Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks), is an angry union activist who chafes at the many indignities he faces. And Cephus (Tosin Morohunfola), Sylvester’s sweet, handsome son, is a University of Chicago student who wants to break free of his Tiger dad and work as a porter, if only for the summer.
A rousing blues band, and a flashy, alcoholic diva (E. Faye Butler), are the entertainment. Two characters represent the white race: Tex (Francis Guinan), a bitter, racist train conductor, and Lutie (Claire Kander), a wild, waifish, hillbilly-hobo girl who bonds with Cephus. A major problem: We never see any ordinary white passengers and the porters’ interaction with them.
Director Chuck Smith can’t undo this overly long play’s telegraphic quality. But he elicits winning portrayals from Marshall, Derricks and Morohunfola, even if, in a rare misstep, he lets Butler go way over the top on this problematic yet watchable journey.