“Pullman Porter Blues” may not be destined to make musical theater history, but it does celebrate America’s history through a good, solid night of drama and the unerring power of the blues.
Cheryl L. West’s play, running at Arena Stage, is about a rarely taught moment in our nation’s history: the story of the George Pullman train porters.
It is a story with rich significance for Washington. A statue of A. Phillip Randolph, the great Pullman porter labor leader, graces Union Station, and porters played a pivotal role in the great migration of Southern blacks in the first half of the 20th century, when Washington served as something of a geographic milestone for those fleeing segregation for opportunity in the supposedly enlightened North.
The story resonates so deeply that on its opening night in D.C., “Pullman Porter Blues” was introduced by a proclamation read in the show’s honor, announcing that D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray had declared Nov. 29, 2012, through Dec. 29, 2012, “Pullman Porter Awareness Month.”
The play takes place over the course of one night. It opens on the evening of June 22, 1937, hours before boxers Joe Louis and James Braddock would enter the ring. That night Louis would win the bout in eight rounds, a victory that the African-American community claimed as their own.
(Sitting in the audience at Arena Stage on opening night was Louis’ granddaughter.)
“Pullman Porter Blues” is the story of three generations, a family of Pullman porters — Monroe (Larry Marshall), Monroe’s son Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) and Sylvester’s son Cephas (Warner Miller).
It is Cephas’ first night working the train. He is a young medical student, and his father and grandfather have scrimped and saved along the way to send him to university. Sylvester is bound and determined to make sure Cephas doesn’t follow him into a life working on the train.
But, for reasons only the very young can rationalize, Cephas leaves school and convinces his grandfather to get him a shift on the first-class train from Chicago to New Orleans, one of the main arteries of the great migration. As it happens, a former Pullman maid/current Blues superstar/raging alcoholic with a heart of gold named Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler) is also on board. Joining these four are Sister Juba’s blues band, a poor white stowaway who has a way with a harmonica named Lutie (Emily Chisholm) and the awful bossman with a gorgeous voice named Tex (Richard Ziman).
Over the course of the night, Cephas stands up to his father. Juba and Sylvester confront each other and their own demons over 20-year-old sins. Monroe finally faces down Tex. And under Cephas’ influence, Lutie is changed for the better.
It is, of course, an improbable storyline. Although perhaps in a genre where the improbable is the expected, this story isn’t so crazy. West tries, and sometimes falls short, of folding in a good amount of history and social critique. To make this happen, she twists and turns the plot so that each thread resolves itself, save one.
Cephas’ story line is ultimately unresolved, on stage at least. Any American with even a passing knowledge of the Jim Crow South can take an educated stab at his fate.
Whether that fate is tragic or whether, by some miracle, the young man survives to fulfill a different destiny back in Chicago is glossed over, which is frustrating.
Nonetheless, whatever the plot’s struggles, the main actors excel in their roles. The standout star of both the show and the train is Butler’s Sister Juba.
Juba is loud, sexy, pickled and broken. She is a wealthy black woman riding a luxury train during the last years of the Great Depression, and she sucks on that flask as if it were filled to the brim with actual courage. Whatever demons and heartbreak Juba has suffered, Butler gets at their essence. She takes Juba’s broken heart and infuses it into her version of the 12 blues classics that make up the score. Butler does what all musical theater actors must do: She works it all out onstage.
For D.C. blues fans — those who want to, need to, have to listen to the blues — don’t worry. E. Faye Butler is gonna take care of you. She has an easy, honeyed charm and a voice that you can feel in your toes. She is a chesty belter with quick wit, sinuous moves, a broken heart and a velvet voice. Butler soaks Juba in the blues, and the play is the stronger for it.
“Pullman Porter Blues” runs through Jan. 6 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW.