At Seattle Rep, a play about the Pullman Porters

Oct 1, 2012

Seattle Repertory Theatre opens its season Wednesday with a world premiere play about a group of African American workers known as the Pullman porters.

"Pullman Porter Blues" looks at three generations in one family of porters. The Pullman porters were former slaves who worked on a luxurious fleet of sleeper cars beginning in the late 19th century. Their descendants worked the trains up until the 1960s.

"Pullman Porter Blues," written by Seattle playwright Cheryl L. West, tells a story of race, family, union organizing and even a seminal moment in sports history through the eyes of three porters. All are members of the Sykes family.

Each regards his job, as well as his future, differently. And that's a source of friction as well as an intimate look at a family's dynamics.

"You don’t see that that often, where you have black men (in a) generational family situation and the struggles that they have within the family," says actor Cleavant Derricks, who plays 50-year-old Sylvester Sykes.

Seattle Rep is celebrating its milestone 50th anniversary. Jerry Manning, Seattle Rep's artistic director, says the theater chose this particular play to open its season because it features a play written by a local playwright: Cheryl L. West lives in Seattle. And the play also focuses on an important part of American history.

"So much of the strengths, so much of the grassroots operation of the civil right movement that we saw blooming in the '50s and then into the '60s was because of the Pullman porters."

The porters formed the first African American union. They organized the March on Washington. And they were also responsible for ushering in the black middle class.

"Pullman Porter Blues" is set on a Chicago train that's headed to New Orleans. The story takes place on one night in 1937, the night Joe Louis took on -- and beat -- James Braddock for the heavyweight championship title.

The win is symbolic: a black man beating a white man.

The play also features a live blues band whose musicians are characters in the play.

"Pullman Porter Blues" is a co-production with Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington D.C.  It plays in Seattle through Oct. 28 before moving to D.C.