After five years of rewrites, playwright Cheryl L. West prepares to shed light on the long journey of the black American male with Pullman Porter Blues.
Cheryl L. West sits at a Capitol Hill coffee shop, a script open before her, pen in hand. She’s wearing purples and olive greens that accentuate the deep hue of her skin. Her hair, cut short, has grayed. Her patterned Prada frames hint at the lively artist behind them. A single mother of two, West comes to this coffee shop to get away from the distractions of parenthood and to focus on her characters.
“This is the one I’ll probably go into rehearsal with,” she says, holding the marked-up script for her next play, Pullman Porter Blues. “I’m going through it at least one more time before I go into rehearsal. I want it to be as clean as it can be.”
Pullman Porter Blues is West’s eighth original play for the stage. Even when she started writing plays in earnest in 1989, she was already a storyteller. As a young social worker in Chicago, West witnessed human dramas every day. When she decided she wanted to tell stories, she went to school for journalism, eventually earning a master’s in the subject. But she found that journalism’s objectivity got in her way. So she rejected a number of job offers from daily newspapers and turned to theatre. There she found an outlet where she could write about American culture with authority, grace and humor.
In more than 20 years as a dramatist, West has built an international reputation as a bold storyteller with an interest in social justice. She’s written for television and her original plays have been produced in regional theatres across the country.
Five years ago, she began toying with the idea of writing a play about the African-American rail workers known as the Pullman Porters. The Rep trusted West’s vision and commissioned the play in July 2008 as the first work in its newly reanimated New Play Program.
Throughout the next four years, the Seattle Repertory Theatre staged multiple workshops to help West shape her story, a period piece that takes place during a single evening in the summer of 1937. She set the action in two connected train cars, bound from Chicago to New Orleans, where three generations of men are working as Pullman Porters—paid servants on the luxurious trip. The Rep was so impressed by the play that it slated the premiere to open its 50th season this year, an unlikely honor for a new work.
As that Sept. 27 opening approaches, West is still busy editing. Which is easier here in public than at home, where she juggles two demanding audiences: the fictional people in her head and the very real ones in her kitchen.
“When one of my kids was in the 4th grade, she came in while I was in the kitchen cooking,” West tells me. “I was having a conversation, working out some dialogue, and she was in the doorway looking really terrified. She had just learned from her civics teacher about schizophrenia and homeless people. She couldn’t even say the word. She said, ‘Mom? Do you have sitsophrenia?’ She was convinced that I was a lunatic.’” West does not, by any account, have schizophrenia. She does have a knack for dialogue and an obsession with rewrites.
“She’s got an incredible ear for character,” says Lisa Peterson, the production’s director. “The people she creates are highly dimensional. They’re funny, they’re caring, they’re complicated. The language she uses, which I think comes from her life experience, is really, really rich.”
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George Pullman was an innovator. A Chicago businessman in the late 19th century, he had a new idea for post-Civil War America: luxury rail travel. He developed a line of sleeping cars that were resplendent in amenities, including a man for each car who would assist passengers with every need, serving as chambermaid, shoe shiner and valet. These men, known formally as porters, turned beds and waited on the whims of passengers in the dining car. They undertook each of these tasks with exacting detail, following a 127-page book of conduct provided by the rail company that covered everything from swatting a fly to dusting a passenger’s jacket.
Pullman employed recently emancipated slaves of the South for the earliest porter jobs because he believed they would work hard for little money. They did. Many porters worked more than 100 hours a week and were allowed only four hours rest each night, taken in the smoking car on a small cot next to the men’s bathroom.
Dressed in crisp white jackets and always smiling, the porters suffered great indignities that carried over from their painful past. Just as slaves were often named after their slave master, porters were often called “George,” if not “boy” or “nigger.”
Yet the position of porter was considered one of the two best jobs available to black men of the time (the other being postal worker). During the segregated era between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement, porters hewed close to the world of white privilege. In the intimate confines of a rail car, porters were often invisible. But sometimes travelers confided in them, teaching them how the free world worked, how to invest money, secure educations for their children and start their own businesses.
In 1937, the year in which West sets her play, the porters formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first black labor union. In the years that followed, the porters saw improved wages and working conditions. More than any other figures in African-American culture, the porters were responsible for bringing blacks into the middle class and for enabling communication between blacks in the North and South. The porters were integral to the Civil Rights movement; a porter named E.D. Nixon was responsible for introducing a young preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
In his oral history of the Great Depression, journalist Studs Terkel interviewed Nixon, who had worked as a Pullman Porter from 1928 to 1964.
“A Pullman Porter can always get into a conversation anywhere,” Nixon told Terkel. “He walked into a barber shop, somebody’d say, ‘I didn’t see you around here,’ or maybe they’d notice his pants with the stripe. Everybody listened because they knowd the porter been everywhere and they never been anywhere themselves. In cafes where they ate or hotels where they stayed, they’d bring in papers they picked up, white papers, Negro papers. He’d put ’em in his locker and distribute ’em to black communities all over the country. Along the road, where a whole lot of people couldn’t get to town, we used to roll up the papers and tie a string around ’em. We’d throw these papers off to these people. We were able to let people know what was happening.”
The Pullman Company ended service in the late ’60s, but not before a very young Cheryl West took her first train ride and found herself enamored with the ever-smiling men working on the train car. She didn’t think about them much until 40 years later. Now she thinks about them all the time.
West imagines her ancestors, living in Mississippi at the time, picking up The Chicago Defender newspapers porters threw from their cars. She imagines that they read about jobs available for black people in Chicago, where they eventually moved.
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West came to Seattle from Chicago in 1999. But Seattle had been her creative home even before she arrived; her first notice as a playwright came when the now-defunct Seattle Group Theatre planned to open its 1990 season with the premiere of her first play, Before It Hits Home. Her first disappointment came from Seattle as well: That production was canceled following protests over a plot that openly addressed the threat of AIDS in the black community.
Since then, West has continued to work here, with varying results. She was commissioned by Intiman Theatre for a dramatic adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, a production that was halted because the theatre failed to obtain rights to the 1940 novel. Seattle Repertory Theatre has been a constant in her career, staging four of her plays throughout the last 18 years and commissioning the gospel musical Rejoice! When the lights go up on West’s latest creation, it will mark her greatest theatrical accomplishment and the end of her most arduous artistic journey.
“It’s the longest I’ve ever worked on a project before I’ve had a production,” she says. “Some plays come to you. And they come to you almost fully formed. Then other plays you just work on and put ’em away and you work on and put ’em away and they just take another kind of care. A large story, which this is, takes a lot of care and finesse and polishing.”
Beyond honing the script, West has been involved in the building of the set, which will consist of two lavish train cars possessed of a rolling rhythm, punctuated by “many jolts, yawings and grindings.” West also understood that she needed to get the music right. For that she brought on music director Jmichael, whom she previously worked with on Rejoice!
“I’m used to reading scripts and skipping to the music,” says Jmichael, a New Orleans native. “But with this piece, I couldn’t put it down. It read like a good novel. One of the things that struck me about it is how informative it is. I knew that, if the audience ever got to see it, it would be such a teaching tool.”
Jmichael helped bring the play to life by constructing, under West’s watchful eye, a soundtrack that features songs by blues legends like Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy. The music will be performed by a band of actors who amble into the train cars at the beginning of the play. The songs will be sung by the actors, filling in the emotional gaps where unadorned words—even West’s—come up short. The effect is not the cartooning of emotion—a risk with musicals—but the deepening of character.
Pullman Porter Blues packs a lot of ideas into two train cars. West addresses her characters’ history, their country, their culture and their gender. She presents the porter at the crossroads of modern American identity, a figure in the midst of great social change. And while she’s simply an observer of the porter’s story, West knows something about the turning tide of history.
“There aren’t very many African American women who work in the theater, so these stories that Cheryl can tell are unique,” says director Peterson. “There are many more white men telling stories of privilege in the theatre than there are people of color telling stories of the world they know. And that’s just the way it is. It’s changing. Slowly.”
Pullman Porter Blues runs Sept. 27–Oct. 28 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Illustration by Tiffany Prothero, photo by Nate Watters.