Throughout history music has played a role in signifying a certain era and sociopolitical moments. The Blues genre became the voice during slavery and traveled down from generation to generation- the stories were of the people and the constant humming had the power to soothe even the most chaotic situations.
Following the American Civil War, Black men who were former slaves were hired by George Pullman as Pullman Porters – train porters on sleeping cars from the late 1860s until the late 1960s. Though it was an honorable job, porters still faced racism and unfair working conditions. It was music and unbreakable spirit that was able to carry them through adversities.
In the Black community, Pullman Porters were viewed as heroes. They traveled amongst the elite from Kings and Presidents to musicians and celebrities, soaking in various cultures and societal events of the world. They were intellectuals and respected but to some White people, they remained an enigma or viewed as the enemy.
“You found that initially the Pullman Porters were Black or very light and could pass because that way, White people felt more comfortable,” states acclaimed theater actress and singer, E. Faye Butler.
E. Faye Butler (Crowns, Ain’t Misbehavin’) currently co-stars alongside Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls), Larry Marshall, and Chicago newcomer Tosin Morohunfola in Cheryl L. West’s “Pullman Porter Blues” which began previews on September 14 and runs through October 20, 2013 under the direction of Chuck Smith at the Goodman Theatre.
The production focuses on three generations of Sykes men (Marshall as the Grandfather Monroe Sykes, Derricks as the son Sylvester Sykes and Morohunfola as the grandson, Cephas Sykes) battling social transitions, past troubles, present challenges and positive hopes for the future.
“That’s what’s so great about this story; it’s a story about a family. Three generations of a family,” says E. Faye. “You don’t see that relationship of three African American men in a family unit – the father, son, and grandson.”
The men represent the realities – good and bad – of porters and their families.
Their labor was strenuous – standing for hours upon hours barely able to gain adequate sleep and received little pay but saved every penny and shared their knowledge of the stock market, fashion, different languages, medicine and the best schools to send their children to.
“Because of everything that Pullman Porters did, Chicago was the first place where we were able to say we were middle-class African American people. We could go to school and afford to send our children to college.”
The Blues sets the symphonic tone in Pullman Porter Blues, while the storyline is set against the backdrop of the June 1937 heavyweight championship fight between Joe Louis and James Braddock that takes place in Chicago’s Comiskey Park.
Over the course of 18 hours we’re aboard the Panama Limited rolling express from Chicago to New Orleans reviewing the history of Pullman Porters and unraveling the story of the Sykes family.
“This is a great piece for Chicago because this is where the Pullman company was,” informs E. Faye, who becomes ‘Sister Juba’ on stage, a big time Blues singer aboard the train heading to a gig in New Orleans.
“Porters in Chicago are at the fight in the “color only” section or listening to the fight on the radio. This group of porters are the only group taking this run from Chicago to New Orleans.”
She adds, “I think that what Cheryl has done so eloquently is, reminded us what a great history of African American men and family we have that we do not celebrate like we once did.”
Take the flashiness and glamor of Bessie Smith and the bodacious attitude of Ma Rainey, roll them together and now you have a blues sangin’, neck-rolling, drinkin’, cursin’ fashion killer named Sister Juba.
Bursting into laughter, E. Faye smiles, “ Yeah, she’s something else. I’ve done characters with bits of that but never all of that. In my personal opinion, Juba is the alter ego of every African American woman. The woman that hides inside of each and every one of us that most white people don’t know about and most Black men are afraid to deal with.”
As a writer and storyteller, Cheryl West dives in fearlessly. She develops characters that could touch the core of anyone engaging her productions. With the Sykes men, they struggle amongst one another within the realm of societal transitions and life lessons. Juba brings the sass.
As a visionary, Ms. West has a way of allowing a character to be confident yet hint at vulnerability through subtle entities.
With Sister Juba, she goes there. From having Juba, an African American woman with a slick tongue and not the hyped-up size two, disrobe on stage and exude sexuality to showing toned-down dimensions of the character.
Says E. Faye; “It’s wonderful to see that Cheryl is actually celebrating the African American woman in her true sense. It’s something that this society has lost sight of. ”
In Pullman Porter Blues, it’s been 26 years since Juba and Sylvester Sykes (Derricks) have seen each other. The two grew up together on the trains where Juba worked as a maid. Sister Juba is a lot of woman but there’s pain lingering her inner-existence. She has a story and has worked to bury it deep within herself.
“Her pain comes from being let down one night on the train at a very young age. She’s learned to be a different person because of what happened to her.”
With all that Juba appears to be, E. Faye expresses that she is still very much a little girl internally.
The challenge that presented itself to E. Faye in preparation of portraying Juba was aligning with a higher level of vulnerability. “She’s a lot of little girl inside this bodacious woman and sometimes that’s hard to get to. There’s a certain truth you have to tell in a character to get to that vulnerable side as an actor and sometimes that can be very frightening.”
Fear is released and pain takes a temporarily leave of absence once Juba hits the stage though. She loves performing, “because she knows she’s good at it!”
The importance of the music is just as layered as the visual production Cheryl West and Chuck Smith have designed. A musical? No – but a stage play where the music works as a loop and linkage to the stories being told. A production additive is the sound of music and trains throughout Pullman Porter Blues. It’s a space where Sister Juba’s presence is prominent.
“Blues has gotten us through so much in our lives as a culture. No matter what we’re going through, sad or good times, blues is that constant humming that keeps us going,” affirms E. Faye.
The journey is always deeper than it appears. Theater opens a space for one to relive, introduce and create through the use of imagination and researched facts. In the depths of storytelling, history is bound to appear and make us aware of stories that need telling from a new perspective.
“If you’re listening with your whole heart, a piece of you is going in. This piece really comes with experience. It is a train ride; it’s a journey. You have to take the journey. And we’ve all been hurt, lost love and you have to go into those places that we as humans can go to just to tell the story the right way.”
Now, close your eyes, mentally hop on board the Panama Limited and take in the lyrics of ‘Trouble in Mind” while opening yourself to the trials and triumphs of 1937.
I’m gonna lay my head
On some lonesome railroad line
Let the 2:19 train ease my troubled mind
Trouble in mind, I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always
‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine
In my back door some day …
*Pullman Porter Blues runs at the Goodman Theatre in the Albert Theatre thru October 20th. Tickets: $25-$86. For more ticket and production information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org. **Opening night is Tuesday, September 24th.