Pullman Porter Blues at Goodman Theatre: Theater review
Like the train on which it takes place, this clunkily informative piece on the Pullman porters is swift, comfortable and earthbound.
"It's like my life. Feels like a speeding train headed off track," says a character at one point in Cheryl L. West's Pullman Porter Blues. That said character is a first-night-on-the-job, third-generation Pullman porter who's on a speeding train tells you a little about just how on-the-nose West's new work is.
Pullman Porter Blues arrives "home," as it were, at the Goodman following productions at Seattle Rep and Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage. George Pullman's 19th-century company town became part of 20th-century Chicago, where Pullman almost exclusively hired African-American men to serve as porters on its passenger-train sleeping cars.
West's play, infused with a too-skimpy live soundtrack of railroad blues (you'll wish there was more of that element), attempts to relate the entire history of the Pullman porters via three generations of fictional men who wind up serving as porters on the overnight to New Orleans on the night of Joe Louis's victory over James Braddock in 1937.
The piece's first act offers dialogue that's densely, awkwardly packed with facts and historical context while offering only the slightest rationale for how the three Sykes men—19-year-old college-boy newbie Cephas (Tosin Morohunfola), disapproving union-organizer dad Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) and practical, servile grandpa Monroe (Larry Marshall)—ended up working the same shift on the same train. Packed with contrivances, this first half comes across as a lightly dramatized version of a Wikipedia entry on the Pullman porters, or a Chicago blues equivalent of Million Dollar Quartet.
The second act at least offers up a little more interaction and less exposition, though the plot that's there still gives off an artificial, educational air. The divine E. Faye Butler, in a supporting role as a blowsy blues singer who has history with Sylvester and Monroe, does her usual job of making you wish you saw more of her, and it's an undeniable pleasure to watch Derricks, the original, Tony-winning James "Thunder" Early of Dreamgirls, busting a move in the rare moment Sylvester's allowed to drop his scolding demeanor. Chuck Smith's staging is handsome enough, even if the train-bound setting and Riccardo Hernandez's scenic design keep it as 2-D as the side-scrolling video games of my youth.