Pullman Porter Blues by Cheryl L. West playing at Seattle Rep through October 28
First of all, I love that The Rep is opening its 50th anniversary season with a new original play by a Seattle playwright. Nurturing original and local works means the world to me and I couldn’t be happier that a brand new show is gracing one of the largest stages in the city. Second of all, Pullman Porter Blues was a completely immersive theatre experience that transported me onto the Panama Limited line and took me on their amazing journey. From the set, to the music and the characters I was totally enthralled from beginning to end. I was surprised to be filled with a rush of emotion at the very beginning as the “steel curtain” was drawn up to reveal a full train car and the three generations of porters began to sing a heart wrenching railroad blues while they worked in a synchronized, almost militant fashion. It was so beautifully done that I just wanted to cry. The set was gorgeous, the blues were penetrating, and the actors worked so well together. I thought maybe it was just because I had been waiting so long to see this show that it was just emotion born from excitement, but that same rush of emotion hit me again at the end as they reprised in front of the steel curtain. But my tears came flowing out shortly thereafter as the lights came up for curtain call and the porters had real tears in their eyes. It is hard not to be moved, whether audience or cast, when the story is one of fathers working their lives away so that the next generation won’t have too. The most poignant line for me was “sometimes a man has to work hard for a freedom that he ain’t never see”.
The way West contrasted the African American porters with the Caucasian characters in the show was brilliant. It was evident that the porters fought hard and worked even harder to make a good life for their families. Each generation of porters hoped more for their sons and each generation was more educated and determined to have a better life for their sons. While the Caucasian characters just accepted the lives they were given. For instance as the grandfather, Monroe, and father, Sylvester, saved every penny to send the son, Cephus, to medical school, the Caucasian conductor, Tex, squandered his money and couldn’t send his children to school even though he was paid three times as much. It seemed that he was ashamed to be jealous of the porters but I think he had every reason to be. Also, the white woman, Lutie, was a severely uneducated bum and made fun of Cephus for being so well spoken and well mannered. While Lutie was train hopping, the porters were making an honest earning and living on the trains. Though the porters were looked down upon by the people they served I was rooting for them all along because it was apparent to me that they were far better people than Tex and Lutie could ever hope to be and to me that was a true story of triumph in the face of adversity.
I was also very intrigued with the use of multimedia on stage. This was a play with blues music but in no way a musical. Each character had a very real reason to sing the blues and the songs came so naturally. The use of choreography never seemed forced because it was either them dancing or moving to get their work done in a methodical way. The blues singer, Sister Juba, and her band helped in that respect. Playing live music and giving the actors a reason to dance and sing as well. Sister Juba was amazing! A big black woman who crooned the blues in a longing and determined way, spoke her mind to anyone who would listen, and smoked real cigarettes on stage! I’m not even a smoker but I am a big advocate of smoking on stage I think it is a sensory experience that is hard to fake with stage cigarettes and it can really transport an audience into a scene because they can see, hear and smell that characters smoke. Seeing an actress smoking on stage at The Rep was a big highlight for me.
The set was astounding, they managed to build a beautiful, luxury train on stage. Even the frame of the stage was what looked like mahogany wood with gold accents, there were cabinets and shelves that opened and lights for each cabin that would buzz and light up when the passengers needed the porters assistance. The moving pieces of the set flowed so well from scene to scene that I felt like I was walking through the Panama Limited from bar car, to cabin, to suite, to caboose. Along with the amazing set there was also a very clever use of projection. It projected several images through the show, sometimes a map that routed the places the train was moving through, and at times it was railroad tracks or overlaid silhouettes of railroad slaves, but altogether it moved through the scenes in a seamless and non-distracting way and it always enhanced the feel of each scene.
I was truly impressed by Seattle Rep’s production of Cheryl West’s Pullman Porter Blues. The actors were great, the direction was spot on, and the story was touching. I have high hopes for the rest of the 50th anniversary season because this show definitely started it out with a bang! Someday this will be a classic but for now it is an original and exciting show. Everything from the fog rolling off the stage at the beginning, to the blues band playing their music, to the smell of Sister Juba’s cigarette made me fall deeper into the Pullman Porter Blues and I almost did not want to fall out. For that I am truly grateful for the Seattle Rep because being physically affected in a way that I haven’t before by a new play is what live theatre is all about.