Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Review of Arena Stage's Pullman Porter Blues

I don't know about all of you readers, but I've had a terrible case of the "I just want to stay home and be cozy in my apartment" lately. It's hard to do that though when I'm also like a moth to a flame when it comes to invitations.

Already home with my yoga pants on, watching jeopardy, about to have my first sip of Pinot Noir, and my phone buzzes with an invitation to meet up and watch Monday night football in Dupont? I want to say no. But. I. Just. Can't. 30 minutes later I'm walking into the bar.

Just finishing a long run after work, looking forward to watching approximately four episodes of West Wing on DVD, baking an apple pie, and going to bed early? All it takes is a call from a girlfriend inviting me out to a random extended happy hour in Chinatown and I'm hopping in that shower faster than it takes President Obama to reject a Republican proposal about the fiscal cliff.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that last Thursday night I wanted nothing more than a night at home after a week full of social events, but I just couldn't turn down the invitation to attend Arena Stage's performance of Pullman Porter Blues. And I'm really, really glad I didn't.

My date and I started off our night at Station 4, conveniently located across the street from the Waterfront metro and less than a block from Arena Stage. You can read my review of it's full dinner service here, but on Thursday we opted to try the happy hour at the bar instead. We both ordered the featured happy hour red wine. It was a delicious Malbec and was the perfect way to warm up after a chilly commute over. We also ordered two flat-bread pizzas (also on happy hour special). One was a meat lovers dream with pork belly, blue cheese, caramelized onions, arugula and a fig balsamic reduction. The other was vegetarian with chick peas, zucchini, roasted eggplant, artichokes, and feta cheese. Both had great flavor and filled us right up.

Then, we simply closed our tab and scooted across the street to Arena Stage to catch the play. The evening started off with a brief welcome from the Arena Stage executive director and then the playwright, Cheryl West. It was a nice way to introduce the play because West gave us a brief history of Pullman porters. I knew virtually nothing about them before this, but, jeez, what a fascinating piece of history that had a profound impact on our country.

Here is what I learned: The Pullman Train Company was founded in 1868 (all you history buffs should recall that this was just three years after the emancipation proclamation). Pullman recruited black men for jobs as porters on its passenger cars. These jobs were extremely attractive to former slaves, because the men could give up harsh jobs in the field for clean uniforms and a chance to travel all over the country. That said, the hours were long, the wages extremely low, and the work was grueling. By the 1920s, the Pullman Company was the largest employer of black men in the country, with over 20,000 full time workers. Porters were very well respected in their communities because they worked hard, saved their money, put their kids through school, and even established the first black labor union. Additionally, porters are credited with directly impacting what is called the Great Migration- the movement of blacks from the South to find jobs in the North. Porters helped achieve this by transporting Northern newspapers to the South allowing blacks to learn about the good jobs offered in the North.

Now that you've had your history lesson for the week (you're welcome), this play centers around three generations of porters on a train traveling from Chicago to New Orleans on a June night in 1937. Monroe, the eldest, is the hardworking, obedient, senior porter. His son, Sylvester, is the opposite. Hot tempered and angry, he is secretly working to help establish the black labor union. And, lastly, is Cephas, the youngest, who has just finished his first year of college at the University of Chicago. While Monroe is complacent and proud to be a porter, Sylvester is resentful and wants more out of life for his son. Cephas, however, is your typical twenty year old, still trying to figure out his place in the world.

Despite the darker themes of racism, class lines, rape, and family conflict and secrets that develop throughout the play, the opening scene begins with an upbeat and captivating blues song. This is the first of 12 blues songs performed throughout the play. Although I enjoyed the acting and the story line, the musical performances were my favorite aspect of this play. Each song seemed to energize the audience.

I also really enjoyed the set. The backdrop is a copper train car, and the various set pieces are wheeled in and out as needed. The set was clean enough so that it wasn't distracting, but intricate enough to feel like the actors are really chugging along on a train.

Remember above when I mentioned how I wanted a couch night? Yeah, the opening scene instantly made me realize I had made the right decision to venture out to the theater. And I was thoroughly entertained and engaged throughout the entire performance.

If you've read any of my past reviews for Arena Stage, you may recall that I just about always recommend seeing the play. But this one? I realllllllyyy recommend it. It's nothing but entertaining.

Pullman Porter Blues will be playing at Arena Stage until January 6th. Ticket and show information can be found here.

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