Pullman Porter Blues
by Cheryl L. West
directed by Lisa Peterson
originally produced at Seattle Repertory Theatre,
September 27, 2012
through October 28, 2012
Pullman Porter Blues explores the world behind the smiles of the free blacks working in one of the first occupations open to them after the Civil War. In the play, we experience the lives of three generations of “Sykes” men who all followed in their fathers’ footsteps to ride the rails for a living--their collective experience spanning more than half a century. The play takes place on one night in 1937 on the first class Panama Limited train. It is a night of historical significance as it is the same night Joe Louis won the world heavyweight championship. On this night, aided by Sister Juba, a traveling blues singer and her band, our men sing the blues, wrestle with the blues, and live the blues as they explore what it really means to be a man, a black “rail” man of dignity during the height of the Depression.
This captivating coming of age story is woven with iconic and original blues music featuring a live band. Initially commissioned by Seattle Rep in 2008, Pullman Porter Blues will have its world premiere as it opens Seattle Repertory Theatre’s 50th Anniversary Season in the fall of 2012.
In 2008, Seattle Rep commissioned Cheryl West to write Pullman Porter Blues; we have worked with her throughout the development process and we had two staged readings in 2009 and a two week workshop in 2010. Set in 1937 on the Panama Limited train, the play centers on three generations of porters working the sleeping cars the night of the famous Joe Louis/James Braddock boxing match. As the train chugs from Chicago towards New Orleans, grandfather, father, and son spar; racial tensions flare; and Midwest blues flavor the night. Essentially a play with music (as opposed to a traditional musical), Pullman Porter Blues is woven with live blues music, played by musicians who are part of the play’s narrative.
Pullman Porter Blues occurs at a pivotal point in African-American history, a time when the older generation remembered slavery all too well and when the younger generation was beginning to chafe at its lingering aftermath. The porters were instrumental in disseminating the repertoire of American Blues music in their travels between Chicago, St Louis, Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, and New Orleans. They distributed The Defender, the only African-American newspaper, on their journeys, providing a lifeline of communication for their community and helping to fuel the migration north of Southern Blacks. And they did this while following the very restrictive rules of conduct that were mandated by
their employer. Their working conditions could be harsh, but they persevered and formed the first organized black labor union. Their activities were an important, but sometimes overlooked, pre-cursor to the Civil Rights movement.
Theirs is an inspirational tale that has not been told that often, and it deserves to be. While Pullman Porter Blues is specific to the African-American experience, its themes are universal – the struggles between fathers and sons, bravery, sacrifice and commitment to community. Add original and classic blues music to this story and it’s a compelling theatrical salute to genuine American heroes.
-Artistic Director, Jerry Manning
The Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award will give us an extra week of rehearsal, including more time in the studio and more tech time onstage.
Director: Lisa Peterson
Set Design: Ricardo Hernandez
Lighting Design: Alexander V. Nichols
Costume Design: Constanza Romero
Cast: E. Faye Butler, Emily Chisholm, Cleavant Derricks, James Patrick Hill, Jmichael, Lamar Lofton, Chic Street Man, Larry Marshall, Warner Miller, Richard Ziman, Felicia V. Loud