In ‘Pullman Porter Blues,’ a Family’s Train Trip Through Time

BY Imani M. Cheers  December 12, 2012 at 1:37 PM EDT


Video shot and edited by John Dargan.

Social worker-turned-playwright Cheryl L. West spent more than two decades studying people. “As a writer, your charge is to create a story that tells all sides and yet illuminates the human condition in such a way that is complex, provocative and fair,” said West, the award-winning librettist of “Play On!” and author of several plays, including “Addy: an American Girl Story.”

In the video above, we chat with West and actor Cleavant Derricks after opening night at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where her play “Pullman Porter Blues” is enjoying strong reviews.

“Pullman Porter Blues,” which took West almost five years to complete and is one of her more personal works, tells the story of three generations of Pullman train porters from the Sykes family who are struggling to come to terms with each other, racial tensions and an uncertain future.

Set in June 1937 on the Panama Limited, bound from Chicago to New Orleans, the story is set against the backdrop of the famous championship boxing match between Joe Louis, an African-American, and James Braddock, who was white.

“The play is inspired by my late grandfather and his many talks of working on the postal trains as well as my first train ride as a young girl,” said West. “I remember, quite vividly, being utterly enamored with the train’s compulsively smiling Pullman porters. Now decades later, I have the incredible opportunity through my play to illuminate the world behind the smiles of the free blacks working in one of the first occupations open to them after the Civil War.”

The tension amongst the boxers is mirrored in the Sykes men as they struggle to define their legacy as a family. “What a wonderful thing to put on stage now. To show black men taking care of their families and elevating each other,” West said.

Derricks, who plays Sylvester Sykes, commented, “When I read this I said, ‘Finally someone understands black men.’”

To mark the Washington, D.C.-premier of “Pullman Porter Blues,” Mayor Vincent Gray and the D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson declared Nov. 29 to Dec. 29 “Pullman Porter Awareness Month” to honor the history and legacy of train porters. The show runs until Jan. 6, 2013, at Arena Stage.