“Pullman Porter Blues” pulls into the Goodman Theatre

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“Pullman Porter Blues” pulls into the Goodman Theatre this fall with a mix of Blues tunes and big voices. In 1937, the stakes are high with “Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis taking on Jim Braddock for the heavy-weight championship of the world, just as the porters are beginning a fight of their own. Set to the tunes of time, this jukebox musical tells of the unbreakable bond between father and son, and how each decision we make lays another track in our lives, for better or for worse.

The Pullman porters of the early history of the railroad were known for their impeccable service and attention to detail. With no glass unpolished, the men were given unreasonably low wages and treated with little respect by the white passengers. The porters would go on to form the first black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, with several historical figures earning their start on the Pullman Rail such as Justice Thurgood Marshall and cowboy Nat Love.

“Pullman Porter Blues” picks up as the Brotherhood is just starting to pick up steam. Three generations of Sykes men walk the Panama Limited railway cars, with the “P” in “Porter” standing for “pride.” The oldest of the Sykes men, Monroe Sykes (Larry Marshall) prefers to keep his head down while serving the wealthy, white passengers even as the conductor, Tex (Francis Guinan) spews hate speech toward the Sykes. His son, Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks), is in the thick of the porter revolution, working as a Senior Officer in the Brotherhood. Cephas (Tosh Morohunfola), the only one of the family to go to college, left school in order to lay his own tracks, much to his father’s dismay.

The Sykes men serve a wild bunch, from Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler), the boozy blues singer with a past she’d rather run away from, to Lutie (Claire Kander), the harmonica-playing stowaway in search of her train-hopping mother. But as the fight between Joe Louis and Jim Braddock comes to an explosive end, things on the train begin to gather steam, forcing the characters to either continue keeping their heads down or forge a new path.

“Pullman Porter Blues” is unlike most musicals, with the music having little to do with the plot, not acting as a plot device as in other musicals such as “Wicked” or “Book of Mormon.” The music is certainly enjoyable, leading to raucous dance numbers by the vivacious Sister Juba, who could have a whole musical devoted uniquely to her story. “Sweet Home Chicago” brings the audience back to Chicago, even as the train is originally leaving from here, headed south to New Orleans. The sultry sounds pouring from the onstage band strike a chord, pulling the audience deeper into the story.

The show runs for two and a half hours, with less attention being paid to the heart of the show: the Sykes men. “Pullman Porter Blues” while a historical journey is also at heart, a play about family. Too much time is spent on a love story between Cephas and Lutie, which never even truly has time to develop. The focus on the love story takes away from the father-son relationship development, which is a major plot point deserving of more stage time.

Sister Juba makes the whole experience worth the ride, even with a past that is hard to swallow. She is loud and boisterous; unafraid to tell the audience just exactly what she’d do if they didn’t put their cell phones away during her performance, “I’ll kick your ass.” She’s your drunk aunt at the family party: live and uncensored.

On a night fit for a prizefight, the characters of “Pullman Porter Blues” are having a battle of their own, with more than just a day’s wages on the line. The blues sets the tone for this unforgettable journey into a history many have yet to learn, laying down the tracks for a story of family and the effects of the choices we make, both in our own lives and in the lives of others. “Pullman Porter Blues” is playing at the Goodman Theatre located at 170 N. Dearborn St. This weekend (Oct. 24-27) is the last weekend for the show, and student tickets are available for $10 with you student ID.