As the home of the blues, Chicago offers diverse opportunities to experience the genre in many forms. However, few have been as exceptional as the current Goodman Theatre production of Pullman Porter Blues. A live band and robust blues songs flow throughout the drama, but what really makes this a must see for blues fans is the seamless weaving of the historical experiences of Pullman train sleeping car porters and how the blues served as an outlet and inspiration.
“The blues help you say what you feel and feel what you can’t say,” explains Sister Juba, a professional blues singer in Pullman Porter Blues. Vividly played by E. Faye Butler, Sister Juba is the ultimate blueswoman, brimming with bawdiness, independence and intelligence. She serves as the guide through the blues world in a story that follows three generations of Pullman porters and the cultural influences that shape them.
Opening with an authentic gleaming set complete with sliding train doors that open to reveal richly appointed cars complete with upholstered velvet chairs and a leather covered bar, the play starts appropriately enough, with the sound of enslaved men driving the stakes into railroad tracks and singing the call and response work songs that would eventually evolve into the blues. Outfitted in sparkling white jackets and ties, the Sykes men: Monroe (Larry Marshall), Sylvester (Cleavant Derriks) and Cephas (Tosin Morohunfola), organize the sleeping car as they launch into a soulful blues song, “This Train,” that illustrates their pride in keeping the train physically and spiritually clean.
Shortly into the first act, the Panama Limited Pullman train leaves Chicago, headed for New Orleans, prompting the blues quartet lead by Monroe, to leap into a rollicking version of “Sweet Home Chicago.” Fittingly, the Robert Johnson classic is one of only two non-original blues tunes in the production. As Monroe, Larry Marshall portrays the porter with a jaunty air, spinning and kicking as he sings the blues standard with the band.
Although they only speak a few lines, the blues band plays a pivotal role in the drama, providing the musical backdrop as well as aesthetic resonance. The characters of Keys, Shorty, Professor Slick and Twist are played by professional musicians who supply a steady live rhythm to the production. Anderson Edwards as Shorty offers a particular authenticity, as the former keyboardist and bassist for the late “Queen of the Blues,” KoKo Taylor.
The arrival of Sister Juba, in a flurry of feathers and silver flask swigging, is a highlight of the play. Cursing up a storm and demanding help with her bags, Butler plays the character with sly zeal, hinting at the depth underneath the bombast. Spotting young Cephas, Sister Juba is inspired to croon a light-hearted version of “See See Rider” and soon Cephas, charmingly played by Morohunfola, is joining in and claiming the song for his new name.
As a railroad employee, Sister Juba has been hired to entertain the passengers on the Panama Limited and she delivers a rousing blues show with audience interaction. Backed by the band, Juba shimmies in, covered in a fuchsia velvet gown and commanding the microphone with sassy charisma. Belting out “Panama Limited Blues,” the conductor Tex, rushes out to quiet her down. “Somebody tell this man that the blues ain’t ready to be quiet,” she proclaims. “These tracks gave birth to the blues!”
Referencing the first Great Migration (from 1910-1930) of African Americans from the South to the North, Sister Juba touches on the transportation and eventual transformation of the Delta blues into electrified Chicago blues, aided by the trains that traveled between the regions. The struggles and oppression that the trains epitomized, from the forced labor of building them, to the exploitation of working on them, are also directly connected to the legacy of blues music.
The characters of Pullman Porter Blues are also intimately connected to the blues as well as trains. Monroe’s father was contracted out by his plantation owner as a railroad worker, helping to build the tracks that the Pullman trains would eventually roll over. The rail chants and work songs that he and his crew sang about riding the train to freedom, would develop into blues, where trains have always been a significant symbol.
The Pullman Company and most of its porters were headquartered in Chicago, but despite the perceived glamour and opportunity that being a Pullman porter represented, the same societal oppression and segregation, called James Crow in the north because it was less direct than the South’s Jim Crow, were mirrored on the trains. Sister Juba and the Sykes men are subjected to a range of injustices and humiliation that spur them to sing a show-stopping blues lament, “Trouble in Mind.” Digging deep into the melancholy that fuels their work, Sister Juba and the men croon a thrilling three-part harmony, with the lyrics “Ooh I’m blue/but I won’t be blue always/the sun is gonna shine in my backdoor someday.”
The blues spirit is topped off by Lutie (Claire Kander), a stowaway that plays a mean harp. The finale tune, “Grevin’ Hearted Blues” brings down the house as Sylvester, strikingly played by Derricks, and Sister Juba tearing into a duet accented by Lutie’s searing harp: “Lord/I want my ticket/I want it someday/Show me my train.”
Pullman Porter Blues plays through October 20 at the Goodman Theatre, 312-443-3800.
Condolences to the family of Artis Ludd, legendary owner of the Southside blues lounge that bore her name, who passed away in late August. Her warm presence will be sorely missed by friends and blues fans alike.
– Rosalind Cummings – Yeates