“Pullman Porter Blues” opens Seattle Rep’s 2012-2013 Season

This is a production with a superb cast, great music, and a stunning set. Yet it left me irritated by a book that lacked subtlety. Here a number of good black people cope with one bad white man. The story focuses on an important episode in American history, but it is told in the manner of old western movies where heroes and villains were formulaic characters and their diversity and complexity were left out. In real life, not all cowboys were honorable; not all Indians were villains.

On this stage we encounter a contemptuous white conductor (well played by Richard Ziman). He’s a cruel liar, a cheat, thief, obsessive drinker, and even a rapist. The black porters are hardworking, honorable men. They meet, if not anticipate, every need of their white passengers, despite the fact that they are underpaid, overworked, and rarely treated with dignity by crew or passengers. It all plays out on a stage that is an ingenious recreation of a long distance train in 1937, the sort that traveled cross-country before prop planes and jets took over. Projections behind the train effectively recreate history and geography

Within their own community in those days of outrageous segregation Pullman Porters were men of status. They were men who encouraged the great migration north. They inspired their sons to follow in their footsteps despite the fact that the railroads and George Pullman exploited them just as Pullman exploited all his workers white and black. Pullman, who died in 1897 is buried even to this day beneath many layers of protective armor to prevent the workers who hated him so from unburying him and desecrating his remains.

What I loved about the script was the interplay between the three generations of porters. Larry Marshall as the grandfather, Cleavant Derricks as his son, and Warner Miller as his grandson give powerful, uncompromising performances. In their responses to authority and their attitudes toward career and life we are given a brief history of African American experience in the 20th C, including too many years when the men were helpless against injustice and the women were victimized. But their internal family struggles are typical of those that conflict the generations in all American households.

The on-stage musicians provide stirring backup for E. Faye Butler as Sister Juba who offers roof raising renditions of blues standards. She’s captivating and heart breaking, a lady with attitude that just won’t stop.

Lots to like here, but why oh why does it have to be so black vs. white?

Through Oct. 28, Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St. Seattle, (206 443-2222 or www.seattlerep.org).

Leave a Reply