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Struggles and unities on the Panama Limited

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

E. Faye Butler has been recognized many times by the entertainment world, most recently be winning a Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship and being inducted into the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

But to most Washingtonian theatergoers, she is best known for her outstanding performances. Now Butler will star in the Washington premiere of "Pullman Porter Blues" at Arena Stage, a co-production with the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

"Pullman Porter Blues," by Cheryl West, was inspired by the story of West's grandfather, who worked on the postal trains. The play is the tale of three generations of African-American men who live together in Chicago and work on the trains that once represented absolute luxury and America's pre-eminent mode of transportation.

Onstage
'Pullman Porter Blues'
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW
When: Friday through Jan. 6
Info: $45 to $94; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org

The play takes place in June 1937 aboard the Panama Limited, heading from Chicago to New Orleans. The Joe Louis/James Braddock championship fight is on the radio, but there are other struggles occupying the grandfather, father and son of the Sykes family, all of whom are porters.

"The journey of the train is a description of what life was like during the 18 hours it took to get from Chicago and New Orleans," said Butler. "It's about life for the people who worked and traveled on that train. My character, Sister Juba, is a blues singer and a passenger."

One important issue in "Pullman Porter Blues" is the issue of work itself. The Sykes grandson is a medical student and has chosen to work on the train for a summer job. "His father is upset because the son is not more focused on medicine, on doing the best he can in life," Butler said.

"The play has a strong generational theme. There were generations of Pullman porters, because for many, it was the best job you could have. When you were a porter, it meant that you traveled the country, your tips were your own, your wife didn't have to work, you could buy a car. A lot of successful African-American men started off as Pullman porters. Here the father wants his son to do something better than he himself is doing."

There are 12 blues numbers in the show, some written for the piece, which is described as a play with music rather than a musical.

"The music is superb, and it's a wonderful-looking show," Butler said, "with gorgeous costumes by Constanza Romero. But best of all, the play is full of wisdom."

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