Pullman Porter Blues
Back up a truck filled with all the superlatives known to the English language, and while you’re at it, think of some new ones that haven’t been rendered meaningless through overuse. Because Goodman Theatre’s Chicago premiere production of "Pullman Porter Blues"deserves all possible accolades. This astonishingly triumphant rendering of Cheryl L. West’s 2012 masterpiece, which blends critical civil rights and labor movement history with beautiful storytelling and first rate musical experiences, is a genre-bending winner.
Directed by the expert hand of Chuck Smith, his 20th production at the Goodman, it is fitting that the artist’s anniversary material would be plucked from Chicago, the home of the once ubiquitous Pullman rail car production factories. Those fortunate enough to ride the rails Pullman-style offered aspirational luxury to thousands of middle and lower class Americans. These visions belied the stultifying, Jim Crow treatment of African-American passengers, and the hardworking porters who suffered to provide white commuters with the vaunted Pullman experience.
West’s script allows us to weep for the injustice of the period while celebrating the spirit, dreams and strategic thinking of black workers; but two generations removed from the horrors of slavery, yet nearly 25 years away from the March on Washington. A place in time both cautious and revolutionary, this tension is brought to boisterous, technicolor life with fantastic performances, a magical set that performs a role every bit as crucial as the human players, and oh, those music and dance numbers.
According to press materials, "It’s June of 1937, and the Panama Limited Pullman Train is speeding from Chicago to New Orleans on the night of the Joe Louis/James Braddock world heavyweight championship -- a watershed moment for the young African-American boxer and his fans." Three generations of Pullman porters -- the Sykes men -- wrestle with the possibilities of past, present and future as they figure out what they want and how to go about getting it, against the backdrop of the Louis/Braddock fight.
Tony Award nominee Larry Marshall plays Sykes family patriarch Monroe, a man who could easily be misread as an eager-to-please Uncle Tom. His cordial, long-running relationship with train conductor Tex (Windy City stage legend Francis Guinan) obscures the wizened survival skills of a young boy who watched his father perish on the chain gang. Marshall is simply a marvelous talent. His booming, rich voice is equally capable of subtle heartbreak in the second act opening number, "Hop Scop Blues." And the senior statesman is also in possession of some damned fine dance moves.
Monroe’s son Sylvester (a grave, handsome, Tony Award-winning Cleavant Derricks) is the angry rebellion caught between his "that’s life" father and, "anything is possible" younger son Cephas (the winsome Tosin Morohunfola). Sylvester wants to make his father and child proud by toeing the line between righteous civil disobedience, and peaceful opportunity creation. But the audience later learns that Sylvester might also be atoning for a cowardly, youthful mistake involving Sister Juba (a mesmerizing E. Faye Butler), a former Pullman maid turned successful blues singer.
You’ll laugh at Sister Juba’s boozy, raunchy dialogue, then cry when her character asks one simple question, "Where were you?" You’ll stomp, clap and cheer along with the lively, rowdy musical numbers of Juba and her amazingly talented band, then weep that the outcome of a budding relationship between Cephas and young, white, female stowaway Lutie (tiny harmonica virtuoso, Claire Kander) can’t be different. You’ll root for the love story of Juba and Sylvester only to understand why it’s not possible, and most of all, you’ll just want "Pullman Porter Blues" to go on forever.
To put it in perspective: just the day before I attended the press opening of Steppenwolf Theatre’s "The Wheel," starring Joan Allen. That production’s one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission felt like an eternity. Conversely, "Pullman Porter Blues" weighs in at nearly three hours, with one 15-minute intermission, but it just wasn’t enough. So rich, so authentic, so visually and aurally gorgeous (Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez, please take a bow), the production is one of the finest of the young 2013/2014 theater season. Bravo.
"Pullman Porter Blues" runs through Oct. 27 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets call 312-443-3811 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.