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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 12, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 41
Pullman Porter Blues flawed but worthwhile
Arts & Entertainment
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Pullman Porter Blues flawed but worthwhile

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

PULLMAN PORTER BLUES
SEATTLE REPERTORY THEATRE
Through October 28


Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous... but. Seattle Rep's world-premiere production of Cheryl L. West's play Pullman Porter Blues has a gorgeous set (a gleaming brass representation of a Pullman car by Riccardo Hernandez), a gorgeous cast, some gorgeous dialogue, and a new historical viewpoint. It's a wonderful, engaging night of theater, full stop. The hesitation is embedded partly in how well the work succeeds, because there are some choices that appear to derail the intentions.

First, a description of the topic and the play. This is a play with music, and the songs and music included are wonderful. A trio of males - grandfather Monroe (Larry Marshall), son Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks), and grandson Cephas (Warner Miller) - are porters on a Pullman train as the 1937 championship fight between Joe Louis and Jim Braddock is about to commence. The three porters personify the evolution of the black experience in the U.S. over time.

CONTRASTING LIVES
Monroe, who knew slavery up close and personal, kowtows to the white conductor (Richard Ziman in a necessary, well-played, mean role) obsequiously. Sylvester has a fire in the belly for organizing his fellow porters into a union, and has applied to become a conductor himself, thus challenging the status quo and irritating his boss. Cephas has been admitted to the University of Chicago to become a doctor, no less! The contrasts are pretty amazing in their trajectories.

The crisis of the moment is that Cephas has decided not to pursue medicine and has quit school. One of those unanswered questions is that with dozens of other majors to choose from, why wouldn't Cephas stay in school and look for a different educated option? Instead, he wants to be a porter - a job which, while meticulous and rigorous, does not require higher education. Apparently, he has always looked up to his grandfather's and father's profession with longing.

The play clearly demonstrates how difficult and thankless the porter's job is, and Cephas gets more and more disenchanted as he experiences all of its disgusting indignities. However, we do not meet any ticketed passengers - we just hear about them - with the exception of a group of wonderful jazz musicians and their big, bold headliner, Sister Juba (the riveting, brassy, husky-throated E. Faye Butler). We also meet white-trash stowaway Lutie (an enchanting Emily Chisholm), who plays a mean harmonica.

SHARPER FOCUS NEEDED
Lutie, however endearing, is another possible derailment. It's not clear how representative she might be historically, and a white girl/black boy relationship is instantly so dangerous in those circumstances that the play's lighthearted treatment of their relationship takes more suspension of disbelief than realism calls for. In fact, there is a lot of darkness inherent in the situation, with the challenge of a rabble-rousing union organizer and a racist boss, a white girl dependent on a young black man for help, and a sub-plot around abuse suffered by Sister Juba in her past.

In fact, the intergenerational struggle and the historic context here contain more than enough of a challenge to work with. Since the darkness is never even plumbed more than a teeny bit, perhaps it's just not necessary. Ditching the white girl and focusing on Cephas' struggle for self-determination and a healing of their rifts is burden enough for what appear to be the play's main intentions. There's plenty to mine with the conductor and power struggles. Sister Juba's story similarly resonates.

Opining about rewrites aside, Lisa Peterson's crisp direction and Jmichael's wonderful music, the meticulous attention to detail, and the great energy are all reasons to see this show. The cast is awesomely talented, including the onstage musicians. Kudos also to the costumes by Constanza Romero, the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols, and the sound design by Leon Rothenberg. While this isn't suitable for young children, those 11 and up could probably handle the plot and will gain a lot from the historic subject matter. For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org or call (206) 443-2222.

THE BETTY PLAYS
A unique production took place last weekend at Theater Schmeater. Betty Campbell, a wonderful local actress, has become less able to do what she loves - perform. A few playwright friends of Betty's thought it would be fun to write some short plays that she could act in while seated. The Shipwrecker by Scot Augustson, The Prescient Dr. Primrose by Pamela Hobart Carter, Leo and Kat Are Flying by James Lapan and Paul Klein, and Clochettes d'Argent by Paul Mullin were performed September 30 to October 7. They may bring this lovely program back in the future, so keep an eye out. Kudos to Betty and her friends for a wonderful idea, culminating in a great event.

Discuss your opinions at sgncritic@gmail.com, or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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