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"Pullman Porter Blues" looks behind the smiles at historic attitudes and changes

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"Pullman Porter Blues"

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So much about “Pullman Porter Blues” at Goodman Theatre now through Oct. 20, 2013, is grounded in Chicago.

Playwright Cheryl West’s tribute to the famed train cars’ African Americans, references the Pullman Company on the city’s far south-side and the city’s well-known blues genre of deep emotions.

West has longtime porter Monroe Sykes (Larry Marshall) saying, “The blues help you say what you feel and feel what you can’t say.”

Chicago, a historic union town and southern black migration destination, is also where the Pullman porters successfully organized as the first labor union for African Americans.

However, what West has done in her play, is tell the story behind the well-groomed, smiling porters through three fictional generations of Sykes.

Grandfather Monroe ostensibly falls in line with porter traditions but distributes “The Defender” to African Americans at stops down the line. Son Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) aggressively works to unionize for better conditions and to move porters into conductors’ positions. Grandson Cephas (Tosin Morohunfola) has taken a summer job as a porter to see what his family’s job is like but attends the University of Chicago because his father wants him to become a doctor, not a porter.

As the play progresses, you learn that Pullman porters were expected to operate with little food, no time for themselves and families, very little sleep and low pay. But you feel the change that is coming through the three generations’ attitudes and the plays’ special day setting of 1937.

The action takes place aboard the Panama Limited Pullman Train on route from Chicago to New Orleans on the night that Joe (Brown Bomber) Louis defeated James Braddock for the world heavyweight championship.

A live band aboard the train headlined by singer Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler) set both a blues mood and a jubilant tone to the trip.

Starring Marshall and Butler and directed by Chuck Smith, the show puts a revealing spin on non-union and African American working conditions and expectations.

What is arguably unnecessary is a side story of stowaway Lutie (Claire Kander) that made the action drag and added too many minutes to the show.

Instead, a better sense of requests and demands would have been welcome with live characters playing the passengers instead of the occasional buzzer. It could easily have been handled by the clever stage set of Pullman cars against it back-screen film of station, sky and telephone wires.

Details: “Pullman Porter Blues” runs now through Oct. 20, 2013 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60601. For tickets and more information visit Goodman Theatre and call 312-443-3800.

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