Cheryl L. West’s Pullman Porter Blues traveled nearly 3,000 miles, from Seattle Repertory Theatre to D.C.’s Arena Stage, before landing at the Goodman Theatre. The play’s characters, chugging along in a Pullman sleeping car on the Panama Limited in 1937, go another 700 or so, from Chicago to somewhere this side of Jackson, Mississippi. Yet at the end of the long first act, it’s questionable whether this lumbering behemoth is ever going to get anywhere.
It’s not that West hasn’t loaded up her version of the Panama Limited—a train that ran with all Pullman cars between Chicago and New Orleans from 1911 until the 1960s, when it added coach service—with adequate dramatic fuel. The porters on her train, three generations of headstrong Sykes men, have dramatically different views on their racially charged jobs. Monroe, the son of slaves, is just hitting 71 and has spent 50 years as a Pullman porter, a job that demands he play Stepin Fetchit for white customers and white conductors. His son Sylvester, a “born fighter,” as we’re told several times, is working to organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-America union—which reached a collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman company the year this play takes place.
Like his father, Sylvester cleans up white passengers’ trash and absorbs their racist vitriol while maintaining the permanent grin required of all Pullman porters. But he’s determined that his 19-year-old son Cephas won’t follow in his footsteps, and is putting him through medical school at the University of Chicago. But Cephas has other plans. As it turns out, grandfather Monroe has finagled for him a tryout as a porter—on this very run.
Into this heady mix West tosses Sister Juba, a drunken, hyperbolically saucy blues singer on her way to a gig in New Orleans. She’s brought along her band and a secret past with Sylvester. Also on the train is Tex, the drunken, hyperbolically racist porter bent on proving that Sylvester is a union organizer so that he can get him fired.
Oh, and it’s not just any night in 1937. It’s June 22, the night Joe Louis will battle Jim Braddock to become the second black heavyweight boxing champion.
There’s a heck of a play (or maybe two plays and a soap opera) waiting to emerge here. But West can’t find much actual drama in all the potential drama. For her 90-minute first act, she’s content to put her characters together and have them simply demonstrate again and again who they are. Monroe is the eternal pacifier, coaching his grandson on ways to keep white people happy, even as he plots subtle ways to undermine their authority. Cephas is the eternal neophyte, never quite knowing what he’s doing or what he wants, rarely finishing a sentence. Sylvester is either an aggrieved parent, a dedicated employee, or a wily union organizer who outsmarts the noxious conductor Tex. Sister Juba is always big, loud, vulgar, and blitzed.
This act has gobs of entertaining moments, most centering around Sister Juba, an exhausted stereotype E. Faye Butler re-forms into a force of nature. Butler peeling herself out of an ill-fitting girdle—looking as ungainly, grotesque, and seductive as possible—is a true coup de theatre. But entertainment often comes at the expense of credulity. Each time she and her backing band knock out a blues number in her private sleeping car, who exactly is their audience supposed to be? Then again, maybe they’re performing on some other part of the train; neither Riccardo Hernández’s sliding-panel set nor Chuck Smith’s laissez-faire direction does much to clarify the geography from scene to scene. And wherever they are, why are the guys in the band always at their instruments, ready to play? Wouldn’t they be resting up for the gig waiting at the end of this 20-hour train ride?
Entertaining moments aside, little of consequence occurs in the first act (including in the contrived semiromantic subplot between Cephas and Lutie, a dirty-faced, harmonica-playing hillbilly stowaway who appears to have stowed away from The Little Rascals). Everyone’s situation is just as it was when they left Chicago. And West’s repetitive scenes seem intended for audiences who need help understanding the most obvious plot points, many of which are recapitulated in hasty renditions of traditional blues songs. Fittingly, West concludes the act with a radio broadcast of Joe Louis’s triumph, followed by the three Sykes men discussing at great length the significance of this victory—then breaking into a rousing chorus of “Joe Louis Blues.” Got it.
In act two West has brief stretches of better luck. Two scenes in particular—Monroe revealing his troubled past to Cephas, Sister Juba unleashing hers on Sylvester—are powerful precisely because, unlike everything that has preceded them, they dramatize moments when lives are likely to be permanently changed. But the further the act proceeds, the more West overheats her plot, which climaxes in a melodramatic implosion that actually made people a few rows behind me laugh.