Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Pullman Porter Blues Launches Seattle Rep's 50th Season on the Fast Track

Also see David's reviews of Wicked and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Larry Marshall, Cleavant Derricks and
Warner Miller

Pullman Porter Blues, Seattle based playwright Cheryl West's stirring family saga of three generations of African-American train porters has been carefully developed through workshops in recent years, and the result is a moving, pulsating and handsome production, more than worthy of kicking off the venerable company's auspicious 50th anniversary season (and presented in association with DC's Arena Stage).

We meet the Sykes family—Pullman company man Grandpa Monroe, his Union organizer son Sylvester, and Sylvester's struggling college student son Cephas—on the Panama Limited traveling from Chicago to New Orleans. Cephas, balking at the medical career Sylvester has envisioned for him, is a summer hire on the run, which allows him to see just why his father wants something better for him. Sylvester encounters an old flame, successful jazz singer Sister Juba who is still nursing emotional wounds from years gone by. A white stowaway blues-harp player and a bigoted white conductor figure in the mix as well as Sister Juba's backup band players, whose music comments on and adds resonance to West's heartfelt prose.

Under the sure-handed direction of Lisa Peterson, an ace cast gives its considerable all to the proceedings. Broadway vets Larry Marshall as Monroe and Cleavant Derricks as Sylvester are a memorable father and son act, with Marshall quite simply a study in old-time showmanship, and Derricks moving and magisterial as a proud man who cannot stand the idea of his son's lot in life not being better than his own. E. Faye Butler delivers a force of nature turn enacting the complicated Juba, and raises the Rep's roof each time she wails a jazz ballad. Warner Miller as Cephas holds his own opposite these three powerhouses and creates a nice chemistry with Emily Chisholm's tough on the outside stowaway. As Tex, the obnoxious conductor, Seattle stalwart Richard Ziman manages to show a glimmer of the character's humanity underneath his prejudice and bluster, and the show musicians—Chic Street Man, Lamar Lofton, James Patrick Hill, and onstage musical director/arranger Jmichael—make sure every musical number raises the rafters.

Riccardo Hernandez's opulent and sleek scenic designs majestically remind us of the age when train travel was the gold standard of transportation. His work is beautifully enhanced by Alexander V. Nichols' lighting and video designs. Constanza Romero's costumes evoke the late '30s succinctly, and she really goes to town on Sister Juba's grandly garish outfits.

Pullman Porter Blues runs through October 28 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. in Seattle Center. For tickets: visit or call 206-443-2222.

Photo: Chris Bennion

- David Edward Hughes

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