Fight Training: Cheryl L. West’s ‘Pullman Porter Blues’ at Goodman

Pullman Porter Blues

Francis Guinan (Tex) and Cleavant Derricks (Sylvester Sykes) in Cheryl L. West’s Pullman Porter Blues, directed by Chuck Smith at Goodman Theatre (Sept.14 – Oct. 27).

The keen engineering of the Pullman Porter Blues set — a train car that evokes the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago’s Pioneer Zephyr, which dominates the stage and moves here to reveal a cafe car and there to convey corridors, the outside of the train, or other compartments — can be very distracting. But if one manages to look beyond the set, an interesting slideshow in the background conveys the passage of time.

The smoke filled station, which is worthy of Monet’s Gare Saint-Lazare paintings, dissolves into night scenes and meditative sunrises and sunsets, which follow the development of the narrative.

Like many train rides prove for those of us who aren’t the happiest travelers, the play starts off with a good deal of lightness and humor, but as the train’s journey south from Chicago drags on, the script gets darker and increasingly sobering.

Set on June 22, 1937, the train — operated by George Pullman — barrels toward New Orleans on the same night that James “Cinderella Man” Braddock lost a boxing match to Joe Louis.

The play tracks three generations of an African American family — Monroe Sykes (Larry Marshall), his son Sylvester Sykes (Cleavant Derricks), and Sylvester’s son Cephas Sykes (Tosin Morohunfola) — who weren’t expecting to all be staffing the same train ride.

The racist conductor Tex’s (Francis Guinan) and the Sykes’ allegiances in the high profile boxing match between the white and black boxers serves as a microcosm for the larger racial tensions. (Although Chris Jones, writing in the Tribune, aptly notes that without any passengers and just one nemesis in Tex, the latter “has to carry a lot of villainy to serve the plot.”)

The three expertly-cast Sykes men have very different life views, as different generations often do, but if one forgives the cliché, none is likely to get off the train at the end of the journey the same man as he got on. The play meanders a bit, but that is to be expected, perhaps, with such a difficult subject.

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