“Pullman Porter Blues,” a play with music co-produced by D.C.’s Arena Stage and the Seattle Repertory Theater, is an earnest effort to showcase the pivotal role of railroad pioneer George Pullman’s storied train service that spanned the 19th and 20th centuries. The Pullman Company’s famous mix of passenger convenience and workforce discrimination are examined aboard one fictitious journey filled with personal trials and rousing blues standards. Yet while the music and staging impress, author Cheryl West’s script remains a work in progress.
It’s a bumpy ride that awaits the Panama Limited departing Chicago for New Orleans one evening in June 1937, the night Joe Louis is slated to fight James Braddock for the heavyweight title. Among the crew of porters are three members of the Sykes family, each a generation apart and collectively carrying enough emotional baggage to fill a box car.
They include Larry Marshall as the savvy but obedient patriarch, Cleavant Derricks as his rebellious son and Warner Miller as the fresh-faced grandson.
Conflicting aspirations are the least of their problems as the three mix duties with personal agendas under the ever watchful eye of the evil conductor (Richard Zinman). As the train chugs along, snippets of their meandering saga are parceled out like puffs of engine smoke that underscore themes of hardship, racism and personal integrity, always interrupted by song.
Making the story even remotely credible and deepening characters beyond stereotypes has presumably been a focus during initial workshops and the extensive rewriting done since the Seattle production. But the script, while earnest, remains a weak link that is likely to sour future interest in this vehicle until it’s corrected.
One suggestion: Rethink the stowaway character (a frenetically determined Emily Chisholm) who mostly registers as an annoying diversion.
To her credit, West’s uniformly impassioned dialogue effectively conveys the tortured lives led by Pullman porters who maintain their ever-present smiles and personal dignity despite the insulting wages and endless reminders of their lowly status.
Fortunately, too, the train’s passengers include a musical combo led by Sister Juba (an irrepressible E. Faye Butler), a tempestuous but soft-hearted diva eager to drown out angst with a high octane solo. Arena regular Butler carries the show with her infectious spirit, booming voice and adroit comedic timing.
She and her able colleagues belt out a variety of enjoyable blues standards selected by performer and musical director JMichael. They include “This Train,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and act two’s rousing opener, “Hop Scop Blues.” Several numbers feature strong song-and-dance from the three Sykes men and conductor Tex, all nicely choreographed by Sonia Dawkins.
Despite its flaws, “Pullman Porter Blues” offers delightful moments and earns kudos for attitude. It should appeal to the multiracial audiences that Arena Stage so diligently courts, propelled by director Lisa Peterson’s perpetual motion and the show’s spontaneous bursts into song. Designer Riccardo Hernandez’ functional staging renders opulent railroad cars in the blink of an eye.