Right On Track: Chicago premiere of 'Pullman Porter Blues' story of hope and dreams of equality for southside train fame neighborhood

2013-08-25T00:00:00Z Right On Track: Chicago premiere of 'Pullman Porter Blues' story of hope and dreams of equality for southside train fame neighborhoodBy Philip Potempa philip.potempa@nwi.com, (219) 852-4327 nwitimes.com

Goodman Theatre Resident Director Chuck Smith is surprised by how few people know the really detailed history of Chicago's Pullman neighborhood on the city's South Side, off the Bishop Ford Expressway at 115th St. and Cottage Grove Avenue.

"I just did a tour of the row houses and the museum in the Pullman neighborhood last weekend," said Smith, also born and raised on the South Side and celebrating his 20th anniversary with Goodman Theatre.

"It's an area of living history and so many stories to be told about the families who made it a community, all working toward common goals."

Smith is helping share the stories of the generations who founded Pullman with the Chicago premiere production of Cheryl L. West's "Pullman Porter Blues," a 2013 Helen Hayes/Charles MacArthur Award nominee for Outstanding New Play/Musical.

The blues-infused stage telling follows three generations of African-American Pullman porters in the 1930s, an era that no longer enslaves them, but still exploits them in this updated production opening Sept. 14 at Goodman Theatre and playing until Oct. 20.

The original production was launched last October as a world premiere by Seattle Repertory Theatre for its 50th season before moving to Arena Stage in Washington D.C. for a November run.

"I saw the production when it was at Arena in Washington D.C. and I knew we had to bring it to Chicago," Smith said.

"The rail system of travel has always been so key to Chicago. But in the 1920s to 1940s, Chicago was an important stop for travelers who were also going across the country."

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, often called Chicago World's Fair, was an international venue that showcased the best in arts and culture, shining examples of architecture of the past, present and future, and America's new push for industrialism.

One of the most touted gems of innovation of this event came from railroad magnate George M. Pullman.

Pullman, one of the kings of the industrial revolution who ushered in the turn of the century, was famous for his Pullman's Palace Car Company and the luxury train cars manufactured at his factory on Chicago's South Side.

But it was Pullman's vision for developing a "planned community" that fascinated business leaders to officials around the country who toured the neighborhood he created for faithful employees who manufactured his train cars. Today, as the neighborhood still exists, it spans 12 miles south of downtown Chicago.

"George Pullman was a very smart businessman," Smith said.

"What people don't realize is he never actually sold the train cars he was building to the railroad companies. Instead, he only leased the cars, with the stipulation he also was responsible to provide all of the service for the cars, which is how he maintained control of the porters."

Smith said while employment as a Pullman porter assured a steady and dependable employment, the pay wages were poor and the hours much too long.

It was A. Philip Randolph, who died at age 90 in May 1979 who was the leader in the African-American civil-rights movement, the American labor movement and socialist political parties who organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black labor union.

"By 1937, these workers were given $2 million more in pay and benefits and a shorter work week," Smith said.

In "Pullman Porter Blues," Tony Award winner Cleavant Derricks portrays Sylvester Sykes, a second-generation railway porter, union organizer and father. Tony Award nominee Larry Marshall portrays Monroe Sykes, the family patriarch grateful for the opportunities given to him by the Pullman company. Newcomer Tosin Morohunfola portrays Cephas, the youngest Sykes son and med-school hopeful with an itch for adventure. Chicago stage favorite E. Faye Butler portrays Sister Juba, Francis Guinan portrays Tex, the conniving train conductor and Claire Kander makes her Goodman Theatre debut in the role of Lutie, a stowaway.

"Our cast is much the same as the run at the Arena in Washington D.C.," Smith said.

"But when I talked with Cheryl, who is also from Chicago, about how she had written and conceptualized the story, I told her it was a production that seemed like it couldn't decide whether it was a musical or play with music. We decided to remove a couple of the songs and concentrate more on dialogue."

And Smith said one of his proudest aspects for the new staging of this "Pullman Porter Blues," is the recreation of an actual Pullman train car on stage.

"It's made the lighting and every other part of this new production a bit tricky, but the final look and scene-setting is well worth it," Smith said.

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