The Best Moments of Pullman Porter Blues at Ensemble Are When They Sing the Blues

A moment of dignity in the Jim Crow South.
A moment of dignity in the Jim Crow South. Photo by The Ensemble Theatre

There are advisories posted at the Ensemble Theatre during its run of Cheryl L. West's play-with-music, Pullman Porter Blues (2012). Trigger warnings for smoking, simulated sexual assault, coarse language, that sort of thing. What they don't warn you about is the lethargy and clunkiness of the play itself and how it is played.

Has the Ensemble rehearsed this? It feels so uneven and jerky, with lines blown and pauses dropped all about. The pacing is off. This train has taken a major detour. If the famed plush Panama Limited from Chicago to New Orleans, upon which this play travels, ever meandered like this does, it would have wound up in Idaho. Acclaimed director Chuck Smith directed Pullman's world premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Something's gone horribly wrong in this transfer to the Ensemble.

We're on a moving train, let's move. Scenes repeat or give us large chunks of exposition instead of drama. Characters don't grow. They are immobilized within stilted dialogue passages without motivation to urge them forward, to make us care for them. They sermonize or talk in platitudes, or say exactly what's on their minds, which leaves little room for us to fill in the lives we're watching. Everything is laid out like a syllabus plotline, there's no room for subtext or subtlety.

And yet the story is wildly good – a forgotten chapter of American Black history that speaks to us today with mighty force.

The Pullman Palace Car Company, founded in 1863 by robber baron deluxe George Pullman, employed more black workers than any other company in America. Pullman was a visionary, but also a very bad man. He gouged his workers, made them pay for anything stolen from the trains, wouldn't pay overtime (no such concept), they had to buy their own uniforms, and basically treated them like better-fed slaves.

But he realized that, after the Civil War, train travel across the United States would explode. He wasn't interested in owning a train line, that's too risky. He wanted to invest in comfort and luxury for the passengers. So he invented the Pullman carriage, a high-end series of train cars that included sleepers, dining, lounge, smoking.

There would be no end of luxury, from thick Turkish towels, the finest crystal and china, to carved mahogany paneling and red velvet upholstery. All this would come with the impeccable service of his Pullman Porters and Maids, who would cater to every whim – or indignity and racist Jim Crow humiliation.

Pullman didn't sell his cars, he leased them out to the train companies. If you wanted the best, you rented it. Along with the gorgeous train cars, you also leased the Porters and Maids. They were the ultimate calling card. He was one of few entrepreneurs at the time who gave the Black man and woman dignity in work. A Pullman Porter, perhaps fresh from the South, was respected in his community for his poise, polish, his unending smile, his steady job.

Yes, the pay was abysmally low, the hours gruelingly long, the insults persistent, but the work supplied self-respect and pride when it was in short supply everywhere else. Before his death, Pullman was a mega-millionaire, but no better a man.

So West has chosen a juicy subject for her play, and has set it exactly right – on the Panama Limited the night of the famous 1937 Joe Louis/James Braddock heavyweight championship fight. Three generations of Sykes men are on the train: grandfather “Pops” Monroe (Anthony Boggess-Glover) who has been a Porter for 50 years and knows how to ingratiate himself against the constant bigotry he encounters; his son Sylvester (Ron Jones), another long-time Porter who chaffs at the conditions of the workers and is organizing a Brotherhood; and his son Cephas (Aaron Cedric Phillips), a medical student at the University of Chicago. He's been hired for a summer stint on the Panama, but playwright West has other plans for him.

The generations clash in predictable ways with little surprise. “Pops” accommodates the abuse while throwing the “Chicago Defender” off the train along the way, spurring people to migrate north where the jobs are; Sylvester is overly controlling of his son; and Cephas doesn't know what he wants, just not to be controlled.

Also on the train – most conveniently – is X-rated blues diva Sister Juba (Regina Hearne in Hallelujah mode to shatter the rafters) and her band traveling to a gig in New Orleans. Guess who she has known when she was Pullman Maid? Need I tell you? And there is a son.

There's a grimy stowaway in the luggage compartment, Lutie (Kelsi Gallagher), a punk hobo who has escaped, it seems, from a Bowery Boys movie. She plays the harmonica and strikes up a friendly liaison with Cephas, which has the portent of disastrous consequences – white girl, black boy, the South. This won't end well, we fear. Naturally, the train conductor Tex (Brian Broome) is an out-and-out racist, demeaning the Sykes family whenever possible. He might as well twirl a mustache and tie them to the railroad tracks.

The melodrama cranks on and on, but every now and then theater magic happens. When it does, it is glorious. Everybody sings the Blues.

Under swinging maestro Chika Kaba Ma'atunde, the quartet (Urica Fernandez, Quincy Cotton, Darren Coleman or Willie Smith Jr., and Ma'atunde) raise the Ensemble roof in a medley of Blues songs, a gospel hit, and even a slave-era work song.

The talented cast busts sleek moves and wails forthrightly in “Grievin' Hearted Blues,” “Sun's Gonna Shine in my Backdoor Someday,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Trouble in Mind,” “This Train,” “See See Rider.” Hearne makes her glittery entrance atop a luggage cart, blasted to the gills, and tears into “Wild Women Don't Have the Blues.” You believe her! These precious moments stop the show cold – in a good way. These numbers are the very heart of the play, integral to the characters, and so unlike the tepid dialogue scenes. These parts have life and real emotion.

I say more songs, less talk.

Pullman Porter Blues continues through July 28 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For more information, call 713-520-1269 or visit $34 to $59.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover