Heading to Chicago? It’s a great theatre town, so if your schedule takes you there you will find that the show to see is the Goodman Theatre’s premiere production of Pullman Porter Blues. A great cast of Tony winners and nominees come together in a splendid production of Pullman Porter Blues. The video clip above gives you an idea of what a great story you are about to share.
Cheryl L. West’s “refreshingly contemporary” (Washingtonian) play is about three generations of African American Pullman porters on the cusp of unionization in the 1930s. Director Chuck Smith, one of the best directors of the local theater scene marks his 20th anniversary — and 20th production — at the Goodman with this show in the city where the Pullman Company began. It was the porters aboard Pullman rail cars, like the three generations of Sykes men in the play, who tossed copies of the Chicago Defender from the trains and ushered in the Great Migration—the movement of six million African Americans from the rural Southern United States to the Northeast, Midwest and West that lasted right up to the 1960s.
(A. Philip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, served as one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington.)
The cast aboard the “cargo of sorrows and struggles as authentic as the tangy music” (The Seattle Times) includes Tony Award winner Cleavant Derricks, Tony Award nominee Larry Marshall, and newcomer Tosin Morohunfola as Sylvester, Monroe and Cephas Sykes, respectively; Chicago stage favorites E. Faye Butler and Francis Guinan and newcomer Claire Kander; and musicians Jmichael, Anderson Edwards, Chic Street Man and Senuwell Smith.
It’s June of 1937, and the Panama Limited Pullman Train is speeding from Chicago to New Orleans on the night of the Joe Louis/James Braddock world heavyweight championship—a watershed moment for the young African American boxer and his fans. Three generations of African American train porters wrestle with ghosts of the past and dreams for the future as they eagerly await word of Louis, the “Brown Bomber’s,” victory.
Set to 12 timeless Blues tunes performed by a live, onstage band, and hot on the heels of runs at Seattle Repertory Theatre and Washington, DC’s Arena Stage (2013 Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur Award nominee for Outstanding New Play/Musical), Pullman Porter Blues is an unforgettably spirited, music-infused ride.
“Pullman Porter Blues is a quintessentially Chicago play—the train on which the story takes place begins its journey in Chicago, the characters are native-born Chicagoans and the Pullman Company itself was one of the great manufacturing empires that was spawned by the ‘can-do’ spirit of the Windy City,” said Artistic Director Robert Falls. “There is no director better suited to bring Cheryl’s timely and memorable play to the Goodman stage than Chuck Smith, a native Chicagoan himself, whose 20 years of work at the Goodman pulses with the muscularity and energy of his home city.”
Dates and Tickets
Pullman Porter Blues runs September 14 – October 20 in the Albert Theatre (opening night is Tuesday, September 24). Tickets ($25 – $75; subject to change) are available at GoodmanTheatre.org, by phone at 312.443.3800 or at the box office (170 North Dearborn).
Fascinating History of the Pullman Company
Scott C. Moran of the Windy City Times wrote up a fascinating interview with playwright Cheryl L. West earlier this month. You can find it [here]. Here’s an excerpt:
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.
Read more in the Windy City Times.