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'Pullman Porter Blues' Brings City History to Life On Stage

By Jackie Kostek | October 3, 2013 7:27am
Pullman Porter Blues
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DNAinfo/Jackie Kostek

DOWNTOWN — Like a train pulling into a station, "Pullman Porter Blues" arrived right on time.

At least that’s how Chuck Smith — the director of the Goodman Theatre’s current production, which is in the middle of a six-week run ending Oct. 27 — describes it.

“The fact that Chicago has been in the news in such a negative way lately, this show is like a breath of fresh air,” said Smith, who’s also celebrating 20 years at the Goodman this year.

Smith said the play — which depicts a three-generation family of Pullman porters on a train from Chicago to New Orleans — makes people feel good about Chicago’s history.

And although no one involved in the play said it was intentional, the play’s Chicago premiere arrived on time on a grander scale: It coincided with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a historic moment for the civil rights movement, and an event the Pullman porter union had a hand in organizing.

“I don’t know if it’s coincidence, but it’s certainly fate,” said Tosin Morohunfola, who plays Cephas Sykes, the youngest of the family of porters, who works on the train for the first time in the play.

Morohunfola said it's time for his generation to be re-educated on the struggles of the civil rights movement and “to be reminded of where we came from and what men had to endure to get here.”

What Pullman porters had to endure — and what they were able to accomplish during the railroad’s heyday — was why Cheryl West said she wrote the play.

In the 19th century, the Pullman Palace Car Co. began manufacturing the country’s first luxury sleeper cars in Chicago. George Pullman, the company’s namesake and founder, initially hired only African-Americans — many of whom were just transitioning out of slavery — to man his cars.

“I think Pullman thought that if he could hire some of these guys to be porters on his train that would be an easier transition for them than to hire people who had never really done it [served white patrons],” said Senuwell L. Smith, who grew up on the South Side and plays Twist, a musician, in the show.

Pullman’s porters were everything on the trains — waiters, baby sitters, maids and janitors — and as long as the train was moving, they were never off duty.

“If you got a couple of hours of sleep on those 20-hour train rides, you were lucky,” Smith said.

West said even with long hours and low pay, porters were men “of such dignity” and early activists, secretly passing along copies of the Chicago Defender to African-Americans in the South and organizing to form the first black labor union.

“There’s something about what we can learn, especially young people, about having pride in your work, doing your job well, overcoming adversity and still maintaining your dignity, fighting things that can be changed,” said West, who did much of her research for the play at the Pullman Porter Museum and at the Newberry Library, where many of Pullman’s original documents are held.

On stage, the story unfolds over one summer night in 1937 — just two months before Pullman recognized the porters' union for the first time and agreed to a new deal that would increase pay and regulate hours.

West said she embedded the porters' history within her three-generational family — the eldest “grandfather” character came “right off the plantation,” the middle “father” character is a union officer who had worked “tirelessly” for more than a decade negotiating a deal with Pullman, and the youngest “son” character romanticized the porter job and is just beginning to understand the challenges his father and grandfather faced.

“Pullman history is Chicago history,” Morohunfola said. “The men who worked hard as Pullman porters inevitably helped jumpstart the civil rights movement, helped create what is now the black middle class in America. They had everything to do with black Americans being able to elevate their position.

“It was a game-changing piece of history,” Morohunfola said.

For more on "Pullman Porter Blues" and the actors who bring the show to life, watch the video.