Monroe (Larry Marshall), Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) and Cephas (Warner Miller) represent three generations of Pullman porters in “Pullman Porter Blues,” a play that takes place over the course of one night. The show is at Arena Stage through Jan. 6.
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.