A message from Pullman Porter Blues
playwright, Cheryl L. West
I want to invite you to the world premiere production of my latest play, Pullman Porter Blues. Seattle Rep initially commissioned me to write this play with music in 2008. We have developed the script through a series of staged readings and a workshop, and I am thrilled that Jerry Manning chose my play to open Seattle Rep’s 50th Anniversary Season!
The play is inspired by my late grandfather and his many tales of working on the postal trains as well as my first train ride as a young girl. I remember, quite vividly, being utterly enamored with the train’s compulsively smiling Pullman porters.
Little did I know that the effusive smiling was one of many rules contained in the 127- page handbook that every porter memorized and obeyed as part of their employment contract with the Pullman Company, the largest employer of African Americans in the early 1900s. In order to receive full pay, I have since learned that the ever-smiling porters were required to work 400 hours per month or 11,000 miles—whichever occurred first--sometimes standing twenty hours straight.
And yet they persevered and became the first organized black labor union, a feat that cost many of them their jobs and their lives. They were revered in their own community not only for their tailored dignity but also for their willingness to be cultural conduits for blacks all over the country, particularly in the South. Their uncanny ability to listen without being “seen” allowed them unprecedented access to famous politicians, entertainers, and sports figures who rode the train and unknowingly dispensed valuable information that the porters would later disseminate to black communities throughout the country.
It is this bravery, sacrifice and commitment to community and to each other that Pullman Porter Blues explores. In the play, we experience the lives of three generations of “Sykes” men who all followed in their fathers’ footsteps to ride the rails for a living. The play takes place on one night in 1937 on the first class Panama Limited train. It is a night of historical significance as it is the same night Joe Louis won the world heavyweight championship. On this night, aided by Sister Juba, a traveling blues singer and her band, our men sing the blues, wrestle with the blues, and live the blues as they explore what it really means to be a man, a black “rail” man of dignity during the height of the Depression.
Pullman Porter Blues plays at Seattle Rep from September 27 through October 28, 2012. I hope you will join me in this theatrical salute to true American heroes!