There are homecomings, reunions and anniversaries all tied to Pullman Porter Blues, a 2012 play by Chicago native Cheryl L. West making its regional debut this month at the Goodman Theatre.
First, there's the fact that Chicago was headquarters to the Pullman Palace Car Company, which manufactured and operated luxury railroad cars that became famed throughout the world starting in the 19th century. Then there's the impact of company founder George Pullman and his initial decision to exclusively man his luxury sleeper rail cars with African Americans, who would eventually become politically influential.
"Pullman porters were men of dignity and they were men who worked incredibly hard and who were impeccably dressed," said West, adding that the job offered many African-American families their first entry into the middle class. "These men were also early activists and they cared about their community."
To shine a light on the legacy of Pullman porters, West set her play aboard a Chicago-to-New Orleans train in 1937, specifically on the night when the African-American boxer Joe Louis was fighting James Bradddock for the world heavyweight boxing championship. This was also the year in which the very first African-American union was formed, known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which would go on to be one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his influential "I Have a Dream" speech.
"As soon as I saw it, right away I knew that it was a play that the Goodman should do because of its strong Chicago presence," said Pullman Porter Blues director Chuck Smith, who is currently commemorating his 20th anniversary season at the Goodman. "The boxing championship that takes place during the play is in Chicago, the train actually leaves out of the Illinois Central Station in Chicago and all of the family of porters that the play focuses on are all Chicago residents, so it really is a Chicago play."
For its run at the Goodman, West has slightly revised Pullman Porter Blues following its 2012 joint world premieres at Seattle Repertory Theatre and at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The Goodman Theatre's physical production of Pullman Porter Blues is all new, though there are artists from the play's original runs who are making returns.
One of those artists is actor Larry Marshall, a Tony Award nominee for playing Sportin' Life in the 1976 Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess and a Goodman veteran who previously appeared here in West's Duke Ellington and Shakespeare-inspired 1997 musical Play On! In Pullman Porter Blues, Marshall plays the 71-year-old porter Monroe Sykes, who is the father of union organizer and porter Sylvester (Dreamgirls Tony Award-winner Cleavant Derricks) and grandfather to the newly hired porter Cephas (Goodman newcomer Tosin Morohunfola).
"I'm just happy to have a job and be off the plantation," said Marshall in describing his Mississippi-born character of Monroe, who would have been one of the very first porters hired by Pullman. "I'm thinking in terms that this is the best job you can have if you have no education. Which is what Pullman wanted. They didn't want educated Blacks, they wanted subservient Blacks."
So Monroe's outlook is inevitably going to clash with those of future generations, particularly his activist son, Sylvester, who wants to fight back against Pullman and create better working conditions.
Also aboard the train is the singer Sister Juba, played by six-time Jeff Award-winning actress E. Faye Butler, which is how West was able to get a healthy dose of Chicago blues music into the play.
"This blues woman rents out her own Pullman car so she could be shielded from racism," said West, adding that the character of Sister Juba wouldn't have been allowed to eat in the train's dining car at the time. "All of the people in the play at some point sing, and music is a way of expressing what is difficult to articulate, especially the blues, which is something raw and very truthful."
Another aspect of Pullman porters that West wanted to highlight was their important role in the Great Migration of Southern Blacks to northern cities. Many Pullman porters would smuggle aboard copies of the influential African-American newspaper Chicago Defender and distribute them along the rails.
"It was through people having the Chicago Defender that they knew what was going on," said Smith in terms of northern job opportunities and civil rights activism. Smith also pointed out the great respect that Pullman porters had in the African-American community since "they were great storytellers because they traveled a lot—they were like heroes, so this is just a great tale to tell not only for this particular time, but also because I don't think we've had any real stories told about the Pullman porter."
"I think it's going to touch a lot of people here and I think a lot of people are going to be proud of this production," said Marshall, who has his own fond memories of his stepfather's father, John William Bethea, who worked as a Pullman porter. "This is very true to what they went through."
Pullman Porter Blues runs from Saturday, Sept. 14, through Sunday, Oct. 20, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Previews run through Sunday, Sept. 23. The regular run of performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays (also on Tuesday, Oct. 15 and Sundays, Sept. 29 and Oct. 6), 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (also Thursdays, Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 17). Tickets are $25-$75 (subject to change). Call 312-443-3800 or visit www.goodmantheatre.org for more information.