Pullman Porter Blues pulls into the station at Arena Stage

Oct 19, 2012
Pullman Porter Blues

Following its celebrated opening at Seattle Repertory Theatre, Pullman Porter Blues travels across the country to sweep D.C. audiences along for a ride in its world-premiere co-production at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Inspired by her grandfather's work on the postal trains, playwright Cheryl L. West, whose work at Arena Stage includes Jar the Floor and Play On!, returns with the tale of three Pullman train porters whose journey is underscored by Midwest blues songs, including "Sweet Home Chicago" and "This Train." Directed by Lisa Peterson (Arena's The Rainmaker and The Quality of Life), Pullman Porter Blues runs November 23, 2012 - January 6, 2013 in the Kreeger Theater.

E. Faye Butler (Oklahoma!, Trouble in Mind), whose performance in Seattle has been praised as "a bravura turn by diesel strength singer-actor" (Seattle Times), returns to Arena as traveling blues singer Sister Juba. Butler's Juba joins three generations of Sykes men working the rails, portrayed by Broadway veteran Larry Marshall (The Color Purple) as proud grand patriarch Monroe, Tony Award winner Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls) as his troubled son Sylvester and Warner Miller (premiere of Danai Gurira's The Convert) as the young and ambitious Cephas. Rounding out the cast are Emily Chisholm as Lutie, Richard Ziman as Tex, Felicia Loud as Sister Juba Understudy, James Patrick Hill as Twist, Jmichael as Keys, Lamar Lofton as Shorty and Chic Street Man as Slick.

"With its powerful focus on this moment in history, Pullman Porter Blues gives us a glimpse into the lives of train porters in 1937," says Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith. "Not much is known about the early days of the Pullman porters, because the great Chicago fire destroyed nearly all of the early records, so I am thrilled to have Cheryl back at Arena to bring this vital story to life. I'm pleased to welcome back Lisa Peterson with her directorial vision."

She continues, "This show is a homecoming for Jerry Manning, Artistic Director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, who started his theatrical career 25 years ago at Arena Stage. This co-production launches Seattle Repertory Theatre's wonderful 50th anniversary season."

About Pullman Porter Blues: Pullman Porter Blues reveals the true hero hidden within every man. It's June 1937 and the Panama Limited, bound from Chicago to New Orleans, is bouncing to the beat of the rollicking Midwest blues. Most folks are tuned in to the Joe Louis/James Braddock championship bout, but the men of the Sykes family—three generations of porters—know there's more at stake than just a boxing title, as they battle each other, racial tensions and an uncertain future. Will the hope they get from the Brown Bomber be the fuel this family needs to make a better life, or will progress tear them apart?

"The play is inspired by my late grandfather and his many tales of working on the postal trains as well as my first train ride as a young girl," shares West. "I remember, quite vividly, being utterly enamored with the train's compulsively smiling Pullman porters. Now, decades later, I have the incredible opportunity through my play to illuminate the world behind the smiles of the free blacks working in one of the first occupations open to them after the Civil War."

In honor of Cheryl's play, the Seattle City Council officially recognized October as "Pullman Porter Month," celebrating Pullman porters for their public service and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement.

"Cheryl has written a new classic," adds Peterson. "By telling the story of three generations of Pullman porters, she's brought this important chapter in American history to the stage, where it rightfully belongs. And by setting it on a moving train, Cheryl has captured the rhythm of these people's lives and combined it with the presence of glorious blues music to create a very unique and compelling night in the theater. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to help bring Pullman Porter Blues to life on the stage."