Review: “Pullman Porter Blues”

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: though Oct. 20
Tickets: $25-$75
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I had high hopes for the Chicago premiere of “Pullman Porter Blues” at Goodman Theatre, but Cheryl L. West’s play with music disappoints in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to start. The only redeeming feature is a few of the performances, especially E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba, an over-the-top, brassy, booze-guzzling blues singer who doesn’t take sh*t from anyone. 

Commissioned and originally produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre in Seattle, Wash., and then by the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., “Pullman Porter Blues” comes to Chicago with a new director, Chuck Smith, as well as some new actors and designers. The action is set on the Panama Limited on June 22, 1937, the night “The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis took on world heavyweight boxing champion James Braddock and won a victory celebrated by African Americans as both real and symbolic.

As the train winds its way from the Windy City to New Orleans, West concentrates on three generations of Pullman porters in a single family. But before we learn much about them, we’re treated to an expository opening scene that details the porters’ many duties — and is so devoid of drama, I was ready for a snooze on one of Pullman’s famous sleepers.

Unfortunately, the trio of Sykes men are little more than stereotypes. Grandfather Monroe (Larry Marshall, who sings beautifully and dances gracefully) is a dutiful, hard-working employee grateful to have a job and willing to act like Uncle Tom to keep it, though he surreptitiously hands out copies of the “Chicago Defender” in the South. His son, Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks, who has a powerhouse voice), is just as dedicated to doing his work well but resents the demeaning treatment by white management and has become active in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. His son, Cephas (Tosin Morohuntola), brought onto the train by Monroe without Sylvester knowing about it, hopes for a summer of travel and tips before returning to the University of Chicago. We later find out, though, that he’s chaffing at the life his father has mapped out for him as a doctor, a rather contemporary attitude that’s arguably an anachronism in 1937.

In place of a compelling plot, the playwright packs in enough melodramatic baggage to fill a slew of compartments. Some of it concerns Sister Juba and her past relationship to one-time lover Sylvester, whose fears of retaliation made him let her down when she most needed him, and Monroe, who helped her cope with the traumatic violation by a white man. 

Complications also arise when Cephas discovers stowaway Lutie (Claire Kander), a dirty, illiterate, white harmonica-playing hobo who could have stepped right out of “Grapes of Wrath.” Her father has just died, and she hopes to find her mother in New Orleans. Not only is it illegal for Cephas to even touch a white woman, thanks to her pleading, he sets about getting her cleaned up and giving her a chance to play with Sister Juba’s band, all the while trying to keep her presence on the train a secret.  

The heavy of the piece is Tex (Francis Guinan in a thankless role), the white conductor who is such a cardboard cartoon villain that were the playwright white and this character Black, she would surely be accused of racism. Tex, a drunk who ignores the rules when it’s convenient, condescendingly soaks up Monroe’s sucking up, hounds and harasses Sylvester and patronizingly lords it over Cephas, repeatedly reminding all of them what their place is. He even tries to control Sister Juba and her band, not very successfully. And when he does discover Lutie, well you can guess what happens.

Indeed, you can guess most of what’s going to happen as long scenes replete with repetitive, rather lame dialogue play out, peppered occasionally by humor, thanks mostly to Butler’s outspoken Sister Juba. She also can belt out the blues with the best of them, bringing numbers like “Panama Limited Blues” and “Hop Scop Blues” to life. 

The Sykes men have their share of the dozen blues standards, from “This Train” to “Trouble in Mind” (with Juba and Lutie). Poor Tex gets just one song, “900 Miles,” and it’s severely truncated at that. So are a couple of the others, a tendency I found as annoying as some of the arrangements. Musical director Jmichael may be to blame; he also plays Keys, a member of the four-piece onstage band, which comes across as less-than-authentic for 1937. (The electric guitar, for example, looks a lot more modern than the instrument invented in 1931.) Except for Butler’s shimmying, Sonia Dawkins’ musical staging is surprisingly static, perhaps because of the limited space for dancing.

While the scenic design at first looks impressive, the incessantly sliding panels of Riccardo Hernandez’s railroad cars become tiresome, and Mike Tutaj’s projections above them aren’t shown off to best advantage, nor do they create a convincing sense of the train hurtling down the tracks. Robert Christen’s lighting and Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath’s sound design are serviceable. I have some quibbles with the accuracy of Birgit Rattenborg Wise’s costumes.

In sum, “Pullman Porter Blues” isn’t likely to transport you anywhere, which is too bad because it could have offered an illuminating journey to another time.