Cheryl L. West's "Pullman Porter Blues" is a co-production of Arena Stage and Seattle Repertory Theatre that takes the audience back to June 1937, when people aboard the Panama Limited train, traveling from Chicago to New Orleans, are listening to the radio to hear the championship bout between Joe Louis and James Braddock.
But although the outcome of the fight was symbolically important to African-Americans, the focus of West's play is really elsewhere: on the three generations of men in the Sykes family who are working as porters on that train.
The grandfather, Monroe Sykes (Larry Marshall) has worked as a porter for 50 years and is accustomed to the degrading treatment he's been forced to accept. But he can still look on being a porter in a positive light, because when he was young, it was an excellent job for an African-American man to have.
His son, Sylvester Sykes (Cleavant Derricks) is less resigned to his fate and is busily organizing to get the new Porters' Union organized. But Sylvester is steadfastly opposed to his son, Cephas (Warner Miller) being a porter and when he finds out that Cephas has left college to be a porter for the summer, Sylvester is outraged.
|'Pullman Porter Blues'|
|Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW|
|When: Through Jan. 6|
|Info: $45 to $94; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org|
Marshall, Derricks and Miller are excellent actors and create a credible sense of strong family ties and of equally strong antipathies. The men live together and take care of one another until the issue of Cephas' future threatens to tear them apart.
In addition to the Sykes family, the most notable person on the train is Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler), a blues singer. Making Juba a singer with her own band was a stroke of genius on West's part, because after the people on the train beg Juba long enough, she gives in and sings several times, providing the highest points of the evening. Butler has scored successes at Arena in the past but she outdoes herself in this show, proving not only her outstanding vocal skills but also her comic skills.
There are 12 fabulous classic blues songs in "Pullman Porter Blues," some very familiar ("This Train" and "Trouble in Mind"), some unfamiliar. They are effectively arranged by JMichael, musical director, who is also in the band along with Chic Street Man, Lamar Lofton and James Patrick Hill.
Director Lisa Peterson neatly capitalizes on the show's strongest points: Butler's strength as a singer/comedian and West's image of three strong African-American men who are determined to help one another survive.