Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Pullman Porter Blues
Also see Susan's review of A Midsummer Night's Dream
Monroe Sykes (Larry Marshall) is the patriarch of the family, having worked for Pullman for 50 years; his own father, a slave, had helped to build the railroad. Monroe's son Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) wants more: he works on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American labor union in U.S. history, and he's determined that his own son Cephas (Warner Miller) gets a college education and a better, less rambling life. Cephas himself isn't quite sure what he wants, which is how he turns up on board Monroe's train as a certified trainee porter.
In counterpoint to the family dynamics, West brings in Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler), an outspoken blues singer, and her sidemen, as well as a young hobo (Emily Chisholm) traveling with no possessions but a harmonica and a dream. Very soon the characters are revealing decades of family secrets, which gets ponderous at times—but then another blues song kicks in.
West makes clear that she's talking about matters that go beyond one specific family by setting the drama on the night in 1937 that Joe Louis took on James J. Braddock for the heavyweight championship in boxing. The setting is the Panama Limited train, which ran between Chicago and New Orleans.
Both Marshall and Derricks have done notable work in musicals on Broadway, and they retain their elegant dancing skills and impassioned singing voices while projecting genuine stage magnetism. Butler shines in a flashy role that allows her to wear a gorgeous red velvet gown and also wrestle with a recalcitrant girdle—all the while singing like a fallen angel. Constanza Romero designed the costumes.
Riccardo Hernandez's scenic design uses minimal set pieces to convey the interior and exterior of a Pullman train, aided by Alexander V. Nichols' atmospheric lighting and projections. (The map on the rear wall subtly shifts position as the train heads south.) Sonia Dawkins' musical staging never overstates, ranging as it does from sorrow and regret to jubilation, and musical director Jmichael keeps the band members working together with an easy grace.