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Hard Life Of Pullman Porters Gets Stage Debut


For most of the 20th century, if you wanted to travel in style you were traveling on trains. If you really wanted to do it up right, you shelled out big money for a private berth in something called a Pullman car. Thousands of African-American men found steady work as Pullman porters, but they also faced low wages, terrible working conditions and racism.

Seattle-based playwright Cheryl West tells their story in "Pullman Porter Blues." It's a musical drama premiering at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

From member station KUOW, Marcie Sillman has more.

MARCIE SILLMAN, BYLINE: When Cheryl West was a little girl, she took a train trip with her family. Nearly 50 years later, West still remembers the porters.

CHERYL WEST: These men were there who were so pressed and so meticulous, and yet they smiled all the time. And I thought, I wonder why they're so happy?

SILLMAN: That question is at the heart of West's new play, "Pullman Porter Blues." It's set in 1937 on a train travelling from Chicago to New Orleans. The central characters are three porters in a traveling band.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) How. How, every time I see a conductor, a Porter engineer I scream. How? How? How? How?

SILLMAN: The porters come from generations of one family. Monroe Sykes is proud of his job. His son, Sylvester, also works on the train but he doesn't want his son, Cephas, to follow in his footsteps.


CLEAVANT DERRICKS: (as Sylvester) Cephas, your grandfather, he does like his fairy tales, building up life on the train as something special.

WARNER MILLER: (as Cephas) But what if it's me?

DERRICKS: (as Sylvester) He's just a simple man. He doesn't know any better.

LARRY MARSHALL: (as Monroe Sykes) Simple keeps you alive, Sylvester. Everybody can't be as smart as you.

DERRICKS: (as Sylvester) It's not about being smart, but I know my son. He's too smart for this.

MARSHALL: (as Monroe Sykes) He's your son...

SILLMAN: Pullman porters served on American trains for almost a century. Although the pay was low, the job was one of the best available for African-American men at that time, according to playwright Cheryl West.

WEST: Getting to see the country when all you've known is like slavery and plantation life; getting to wear a suit, getting to wear a tie that was amazing for that time.

SILLMAN: Maybe, but it was hard work. Porters were on call for the duration of a transcontinental train trip. They delivered food and cleaned up after sick passengers. By the 1920s, activists like Cheryl West's character, Sylvester, started organize the railroad workers. They formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American union. Despite the hardships they endured Cheryl West says many men loved the job. Her grandfather worked on a postal train.

WEST: He constantly - after he retired - talked about how wonderful the trains were, how much he got to see the country. And he would get this sort of far away look in his eyes and it was sort of he romanticized the trains.

SILLMAN: It wasn't just West's grandfather. Thomas Gray worked his way through engineering school as a train attendant.

THOMAS GRAY: This is the Super Chief coming into Albuquerque, and...

SILLMAN: Gray comes from a long line of railroad workers.

GRAY: And then this, of course is my father. And this had to have been around '43.

SILLMAN: Sitting in an easy chair in his Seattle living room, he flips through a scrapbook.

GRAY: And this is him in L.A. at the other end of the route.

SILLMAN: Thomas Gray's father was a Pullman porter for 44 years on the Santa Fe Super Chief. The train ferried movie stars, politicians and other celebrities between Chicago and Los Angeles. Gray's grandfather worked on a mail train. Gray says sometimes the train he was working on would cross paths with his grandfathers.

GRAY: We would meet in the middle of the night in Northern New Mexico where my grandfather would be on the mail train. They would pull off on the siding as we would go by. So knowing that my grandfather was on the mail train, I would stand there at the vestibule door with my flashlight and I would turn on my flashlight. And then he would turn on his lantern. And we'd pass and see the flashing lights and that was our contact at 2 in the morning in Northern New Mexico.

SILLMAN: Thomas Gray still has that lantern. And playwright Cheryl West still has the memories of her grandfather. But as much as that and her research informed the play, some things just didn't work in dialogue. That's why West felt she needed music.

WEST: It's a way of speaking from the soul. So what the men are not able to say, they're able to sing.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Now, oh, listen all you prize fighters, don't you play him too cheap. Well, if he lands with either hand, he sure put you through the seat.

SILLMAN: Cheryl West has spent five years refining "Pullman Porter Blues." After International Space Station run in Seattle, the play moves to Washington, D.C. West hopes it connects with general audiences, but she also wants to be true to the history that inspired her.

WEST: I have to do it well. And that it has to exemplify the dignity of those men.

SILLMAN: The story of the Pullman porters is one of idealisms, struggle and hard work. So why were those men Cheryl West met on the train years ago smiling? Maybe it was the romance of the rails. But for most, West says it was simply the best way to get a good tip.

For NPR News, I'm Marcie Sillman in Seattle.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Come, close the door.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Singing) Don't take a tip on me.

CHORUS: (Singing) Stay off Joe Louis's street.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing) Piece of me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Speak on it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Singing) Go get your money then.


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.