Cheryl L. West's drama "Pullman Porter Blues" premiered last year in a joint production by Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. But it plays like a true homecoming at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in a strongly performed and magnificently realized new rendition directed by Chuck Smith, now celebrating his 20th season at the Goodman.
Chicago native West explores many of the benefits and drawbacks faced by African-Americans employed as Pullman porters by depicting a fictionalized account of three generations of Chicago workers aboard the Panama Limited Pullman Train to New Orleans. West also sets "Pullman Porter Blues" on the same June night in 1937 that black boxer Joe Louis took on Jim Braddock for the world heavyweight championship, adding another historical local layer to this play that is very much a love letter to Chicago and to the aspirant work struggles of 20th century African Americans.
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"Pullman Porter Blues"★ ★ ★
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (also Oct. 15), 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (no matinee Oct. 10), 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no matinee Sept. 28), 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (no evening shows Oct. 13 or 20) through Oct. 20.
Running time: About two hours, 40 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $25-$75 (subject to change)
Parking: Area pay garages and some metered street parking
Rating: For teens and older, includes some strong language
"Pullman Porter Blues" focuses on the Sykes family, headed by 71-year-old grandfather Monroe Sykes (an authoritative Larry Marshall), who is grateful for his job even if it is often humiliating. Monroe is schooling his grandson, Cephas (an outstanding Tosin Morohunfola), who is on his first run as a Pullman porter as a summer break from college.
Also aboard is Cephas' father, Sylvester (a restrained Cleavant Derricks), who is agitating for change by his union involvement with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Workers. Sylvester pushes his son to become a doctor, so he's infuriated when he discovers him working as a porter.
Complicating matters for the Sykes men is the crooked conductor Tex (Francis Guinan, in a multilayered performance that is not all one-note bad guy). Cephas also has his hands full helping out the plucky stowaway Lutie (Claire Kander, a talented harmonica player and actress).
West infuses a hearty dose of Chicago blues music by having the fictional singer Sister Juba (the ferociously charismatic, dramatic and vocally resplendent E. Faye Butler) aboard in a privately rented luxury car with her band (a great quartet played by Chic Street Man, Senuwell L. Smith, Jmichael and Anderson Edwards).
If there are criticisms to be leveled at "Pullman Porter Blues," it's in West's sometimes disjointed play structure that doesn't always mesh the gloriously performed blues numbers comfortably into the drama. Also, some of the history feels deliberately inserted into the dialogue rather than arising naturally.
But these are minor quibbles for a handsomely designed production that has the aura of a real Windy City event. "Pullman Porter Blues" is a fitting tribute to Smith's long Goodman tenure, and to the scores of African Americans who toiled as porters to make a better life for their families.