—As told to Aimee Levitt
“[My character] Monroe is elderly, in his 70s. Now he’s 71. In earlier runs of the play, he was 70. I keep asking Cheryl [L. West, the playwright], why’d you have to keep making him older? He’s been a Pullman porter for 50 years. The play’s set in 1937, so he started in 1897. He comes from an age that’s much different from his grandson and son. They look at him as an Uncle Tom. But it’s his way of getting by. He’s a product of his environment.
“After slavery, there was a whole displaced group of people who weren’t used to having to make their own way. It was a completely different life. They had food supplied and housing, but they were slaves and worked like animals. Then they had freedom and had to fend for themselves. And there weren’t any jobs. So many blacks migrated to Washington, D.C., because that’s where the president was. They were looking for help. There was a flux of preachers because congregations took care of preachers. It must have been absolutely devastating. And then all of a sudden there’s an opportunity and you jump at it. In one of the drafts, [Monroe] says, ‘It was a hop, skip, and jump off the plantation.’ He’s amazed he’s paid to do work. It’s a chance to see the United States, to see different cities. For an African-American back then, it was a great, great job. You’d do anything to keep a job.
“These guys are being taken advantage of. My son [in the play] is trying to organize the union. They work 400 hours a month. Look at the situation: From the minute they get on the train, there’s no rest, no place to take a break. They’re on call constantly to the passengers. They’re paid very, very low. My character says that at one point, he was making $12 a month. In the scheme of things, that was a lot of money to him.
“My character is also quite crafty in terms of negotiating his way through situations. I’ve been able to accumulate my own home and building that I rent out to Pullman porters when they come through Chicago. In those days, there weren’t black hotels. If you had a layover somewhere, you had to find a place to stay, usually in the black community. It helped to know someone. My character had the insight to understand this. He was able to accumulate money and funds, with his son, to send his grandson to college. He knows how to work with the white higher-ups. My son is getting into trouble. I’m in favor with the higher-ups and I’m constantly begging—going down and getting him his job back. In one scene, one of the higher-ups tells me I have to beg on my knees. Which I do.
“As a performer, I could relate, in a sense. My stepfather’s father, John William Bethey, was a Pullman porter. He started when he was 17 years old. He probably got the job because he was 6’5”. He started in 1919. He worked until two years before he died, in 1968 when he was 66. His run was from Asheville, North Carolina, to New York. I remember my stepfather and I going down to the depot in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to meet him. I’m around five years old at the time. He’d get off in his uniform. We’d take him home. After dinner, he’d pull out his violin. It was his way of comforting himself. And he’d play. He played hymns, ‘A Closer Walk With Thee,’ ‘Let Me Walk With Thee.’ He really loved his job. He loved working with people. He didn’t talk much about the job because he liked it. He liked traveling. He was a lovely man, a quiet man. I remember him being big. I was amazed he could play the violin so well.
“When my family—my mother and brothers and sisters—moved up north, he would come up and get his son’s kids and my brothers and sisters and take them back south to spend the summers. The conductors loved him. He put the kids in roomettes and then moved them around when passengers came on. He knew where they would be. The kids loved it.
“People don’t know what Pullman porters went through. You get to see it in this play. People have come up to us and thanked us for telling the stories. One man told us a story of how Pullman porters would pass information from Chicago to Mississippi. They’d throw out copies of the Chicago Defender. It was like contraband. They could lose their jobs. But they’d throw the papers to people in the fields. One porter would always come out and throw to the same person he saw in the fields. A long time later, he found out the person was a scarecrow.”