The Goodman’s new play captures history, culture and family conflicts and infuses it with the blues.
It’s June 1937. Joe Louis is facing off against Irishman Joe Braddock, and he’s about to become the second African-American world heavyweight champion in history. Meanwhile, the Pullman porters are entrenched in the fight to unionize. And on a train traveling from Chicago to New Orleans, the Sykes men — three generations of porters — eagerly await news from the boxing ring. That’s the premise of “Pullman Porter Blues,” the Goodman Theatre’s new play, which layers multiple historical events with complex family dynamics and backs it all with blues music.
“It’s a portrait of not only African-American life in the 1930s, but also train culture in the 1930s,” says Tosin Morohunfola, who plays Cephas Sykes, a young man eager to become a Pullman porter, a job that commanded an almost military-like level of respect in the black community. “But despite the status, you were still under the foot of the man, underpaid and mistreated,” says Morohunfola. “So there was this strange juxtaposition of being in a prized role, but still being denigrated.”
This contradiction provides the foundation for much of the play’s drama. While Cephas wants to be a porter, his father, Sylvester, who’s leading the charge to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (which would become the first black-led labor organization chartered by the American Federation of Labor), doesn’t want him to. “He wants him to go to school, be a doctor and elevate the race by his own personal achievements,” says Morohunfola. “And his grandfather [Monroe, also a porter] just wants there to be peace.”
The show isn’t technically a musical, but the blues plays a significant role; a dozen songs are performed by the cast and an on-stage band. “The blues is a language of an oppressed person, and in this case, an oppressed people,”says Morohunfola. “The music reinforces what’s going on in their lives, but it’s the blues in particular because each of these characters is suffering from their own piece of depression.”
Penned by Cheryl L. West and helmed by resident director Chuck Smith (who celebrates his 20th anniversary and 20th production with the Goodman this season), the play is firmly intertwined with Chicago. The Louis/Braddock fight — a seminal moment in African-American history — took place here, while the Pullman neighborhood on the South Side housed the porters and other railroad employees. In fact, while putting the play together, the cast spent a lot of time delving into that history by watching documentaries, discussing the porters, the blues and Joe Louis, and visiting the Pullman Porter Museum (10406 S. Maryland).
“It’s very much a Chicago story, and very much an American story,” says Morohunfola. “And it’s an education as well as it is entertainment, which I really value.”
‘Pullman Porter Blues’ — Sept. 14-Oct. 20, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, $25-$75. For tickets, visit Goodmantheatre.org.