Goodman Schools Patrons on Racism, Pullman and the Blues

In the best classes ever taken, learning is a byproduct of curiosity that leads to personal investment.

Get ready to be schooled by Goodman Theatre’s “Pullman Porter Blues.”

Cheryl West’s play, with a magnificent 12-number live blues soundtrack, simultaneously delivers insight, entertainment and education with local relevance. This quintessentially Chicago show with the most lavish sets found on a Chicagoland stage this year is finally home—almost exactly a year after its world premiere in Seattle.

Its story revolves around the hidden lives of three generations of African-American Pullman porters on the cusp of unionization. Set in June 1937 on the Panama Limited Pullman Train, the three are joined by a racist white conductor, a sassy teen stowaway, an African-American blues singer with a history, and her fantastic band.

The backdrop of Joe Louis’ fight (he defeated James Braddock to become the first African-American heavyweight champion) sets the stage for Director Chuck Smith’s insightful course on the Pullman Company, racism, unionization, blues music and the North/South divide. It’s all presented aboard his lavish train racing from Chicago to New Orleans.

Smith’s cast is led by Tony nominee (“Porgy and Bess”) Larry Marshall as Monroe Sykes, the family patriarch and Pullman man. He’s joined by Chicago favorite, multiple Jeff Award-winner E. Faye Butler as over-the-top blues singer Sister Juba. This duo helps gray the line between musical and play with integration of the known blues soundtrack (including “Sweet Home Chicago”) into the plot.

Tony Award-winner Cleavant Derricks (“Dreamgirls”) plays Sylvester Sykes, a second-generation railway porter, union organizer and father, who wants more for his son Cephas (Tosin Morohunfola) than the Pullman life.

Though this lead quartet delivers the necessary talent and energy to keep the train moving down the track, it is a long trip. The subplot involving stowaway Lutie (Claire Kander) is well played but unnecessary. Lutie’s exclusion would help shorten the ride to a more comfortable length.

The other change that would benefit this production of 2013’s Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur Award nominee for Outstanding New Play/Musical is the inclusion of white passengers to illustrate relationships between them and the porters. Their exclusion, even as walk-on roles, is perplexing.

What must not be changed is scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s intricate Pullman car replica. Its exterior slides back to expose a gorgeous mahogany-lined corridor which peels back in various places to reveal a sleeping berth, the club car and the train’s storage. Every detail of this set is magnificently appointed.

All said, this production is Khan Academy for patrons of Chicagoland theater. Log on and allow “Pullman Porter Blues” to turn curiosity into personal investment.

“Pullman Porter Blues” runs through October 26 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Tickets cost $25-75. Tickets and information are available on Goodman Theatre’s website, by calling 312-443-3800 or in person at the theater’s box office.


barry-reszel-writers-photoBarry Reszel is a Libertyville-based writer, at-home dad and executive director of the not-for-profit entertainment company         Liberty Town Productions.



  Who We Are       NFP Support       Magazine       Programs       Donate