Chicago Theater Review: PULLMAN PORTER BLUES (Goodman Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on September 29, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

CHANGE ON A TRAIN

Schematic, predetermined and sometimes improbable, Cheryl L. West’s ambitious family saga Pullman Porter Blues blends blues ballads with convenient confessions in order to richly portray three generations of a family who are literally on the rails. As Tosin Morohunfola (Cephas Sykes), Larry Marshall (Monroe Sykes) and Cleavant Derricks (Sylvester Sykes) in ‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at the Goodman Theatre.capacious as a documentary and as focused as a family album, this sprawling domestic drama takes place on June 22, 1937, the night of Joe “Brown Bomber” Louis’ championship victory. We’re on the Panama Limited, a streamlined “superliner” making 24 stops between Chicago and New Orleans. No question, enough time (almost three hours) is provided for a ton of revelations, which are engrossing to derivative. The focus: the hard work and mean conditions endured by exclusively African-American Pullman porters and the songs they sang to ease the pain. Some revelations are new but the play is familiar to a fault.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Chuck Smith.

In its local premiere, Blues receives a necessarily heartfelt staging by Chuck Smith, aided by the usual lavish and impeccable Goodman Theatre production elements. It’s easy to enjoy the train’s steel exterior, wooden passageways and plush interiors by Riccardo Hernandez and socially specific costumes by Birgit Rattenborg Wise.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Chuck Smith.

Both believably and deliberately, the rail riders—and the automatic exposition they trigger from each other—create the plot. Working the sleeping, club and baggage cars are the vibrant Sykes family. At the height of the Great Depression, an inter-generational male triad is caught between a future that A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters may or may not deliver, and the even worse past of slavery. As they labor for cutthroat capitalist George Pullman, they must deliver dinner and clean up the bathrooms after drunk white passengers, keep a strict inventory of company property to enforce their honesty, maintain supple service and little eye contact, and endure the death of a thousand social cuts—such as being called “George,” just as slaves were called by their masters’ names.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Chuck Smith.

The grandson of a slave, Monroe (Larry Marshall) is the (foxy) grandpa and Pullman perfectionist who believes in turning a job into a craft–but Monroe can bend the rules and still survive: Along the southern route, he enjoys surreptitiously delivering the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that would inspire the great “northern migration.” He’s brought along his grandson Cephas (Tosin Morohunfola), who, discouraged by too-high expectations, has left medical school at the University of Chicago in order to pursue the family trade. This deeply upsets his father Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) who wants a better life for his son and is deeply devoted to the union. Their family friction is strictly by the numbers.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Chuck Smith.

Though no passengers ever appear, the Sykes guys interact with the blues band that plays the club car, particularly the tipsy and temperamental blues diva Sister Juba (ebullient E. Faye Butler). Juba shares a past with Sylvester that quickly becomes the present: She’s also a reluctant sponsor for Lutie (Claire Kander), a white-trash hobo with a harmonica who bonds with Cephas but runs afoul of Tex (Francis Guinan), a racist white conductor straight out of an overwrought melodrama; this nasty piece of union-busting dreck does everything but tie Lutie and the Sykes to the railroad tracks.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Chuck Smith.

The dozen blues classics (such as “Sweet Home Chicago” and Sister Juba’s signature “See See Rider”) feel far more authentic than the increasingly histrionic happenings on this train. (The antics as they approach New Orleans could easily end the Sykes’ careers forever–which makes the lack of passengers extremely convenient. In reality they could never have been this, well, unprofessional.)

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Chuck Smith.

Happily, director Smith inspires sterling performances from the principals. They feel far fresher and sharper than the forcibly sentimental or generically penned dialogue would suggest. Indeed, Marshall works overtime to naturalize Monroe’s unstoppably sententious sermonizing. For some theatergoers, the Sykes family’s reconciliation will be reward enough for its sheer predictability. For more, this train (or plot) derails long before it reaches Louisiana.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Chuck Smith.

photos by Liz Lauren

Pullman Porter Blues
Goodman Theatre
scheduled to end on October 20, 2013
EXTENDED through October 27, 2013
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 and http://www.GoodmanTheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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