A conversation about the new play Pullman Porter Blues with playwright Cheryl L. West, director Lisa Peterson, actor E. Faye Butler, and dramaturg Christine Sumption. Read the full article at Ms.
The Ms. Magazine Blog: What would you say Pullman Porter Blues is about?
West: The entire play really is about how do you survive: How do you survive in your family, how do you survive against economic oppression, how do you survive alone? How do you survive when there’s so little to go around? And how do you survive your own choices in life? I think that this story really resonates today because I think we are also in a time in our country when so many people are fighting to survive, and that doesn’t always bring out the pretty in us.
Peterson: I think the story is about a generation of men working on the train and how they try to pass down from one generation to the next the best part of themselves, to make the future better than the past. It’s a play about the generations joining forces to make a better future.
I understand the play was inspired somewhat by memories of West’s grandfather?
West: I don’t remember his specific stories, but I do remember how much it changed him and that when he would tell them he would so romanticize that time in his life, the ability to travel, the ability to see the country, to have a good job for a black at that time. I remember more his expression than anything else.
Most people have a train story, some nostalgia about the train, and so it just seems to resonate with all kinds of people. A lot of times trains lull you into reflection and to think deeply about things, to see the world passing you by literally out the window makes you reflect on your world.
Sumption: [Cheryl told me] she remembers taking the train down to go back and visit family in Mississippi. And she remembered that her grandmother, who was a bit of a flirt, every time a porter walked by she would just lift her skirt up just a little bit. And Cheryl was always trying to figure out what was the attraction to these men? She remembers they were so clean, they were so pressed, and she was just intrigued by what made these men smile all the time. She had no idea about the kind of professional armor they had to wear. And as we got talking we realized a lot of different people, their uncles, their grandfathers were porters.
What are the different ideas represented by these men of one family and three generations?
West: Monroe is such a character of a man who really believes in the family. He really believes in protecting them. The strain throughout his story is that he wants to protect the generations and protect their history. He wants them to know it because he believes that history is what’s going to be their veil of protection so that they can survive the next generation. Because if you don’t know where you came from it’s hard to know where you’re going and how you arrived where you are at the present.
That second generation, that Sylvester character, is always so angry. You learn as the play goes on that this is a man looking for redemption. I mean he has some things to be angry about, he has some things to feel like a failure about. And the way he’s learned to cope in his life, the way that he’s learned to survive is this sort of combustible kind of anger.
His son, Cephas, has the benefit of a few years past slavery, his son has education, some sense of his own manhood, because he has been able to go to a school, he has had privileges. And he’s been so sheltered and protected in a way that he doesn’t know that it’s a danger out there just because of the color of his skin. He has both of them there sheltering and protecting so a lot of the ugliness of the world has been kept from him. In a way the grandfather put him on this train to teach him in a way that just telling him would not.
Most people don’t know the details of the history behind the Pullman porters. Tell us more about them.
Sumption: [Cheryl] knew she was going to writing something about the porters, and did an extensive examination of the history trying to decide where we wanted to place the play historically. She chose 1937 specifically because that was the year that the Pullman company recognized the union and signed a collective bargaining agreement with them. It was also the year that Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship and so we chose to set it on that night. But the Brotherhood was first formed in about 1925 and Pullman was fiercely anti-union. Particularly they did not want African American men unionizing. They hired them specifically right out of slavery; the company was getting started and all the slaves had just been emancipated and were looking for jobs. And this was a way of not only – in the benevolent view, providing employment for this group of black workers – but also advertising to white people that they would get the service that was the equivalent to having slaves. And so they are definitely playing both sides of the coin here.
The union struggled for many years; they had to remain underground. Asa Philip Randolph was the head of the union and he fought all kinds of dirty tricks. It took them ten years to get the charter from the American Federation of Labor and up until that time, all the unions had been white. By 1928 or 29 the union had 10,000 members. I mean it was huge. Then the stock market crashed, the economy went into a tailspin, and the union also really suffered during that time. But they were fiercely determined organizers.
West: You know there were maids on this train. Then after a certain amount of years, there were no maids any more. I think in 1925 they really starting organizing the union, it took them 12 years to get the Pullman Company to sign a collective bargaining agreement. So from where this play takes place in a few months they’re gonna finally get recognized as a union. It took them twelve long years.
Christine: And although the union, which is famous for being the first African American labor union, was initially called The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, in 1929 when they developed a new constitution they dropped the “and maids” from the title. So even in the world of their union they were excluded.
West: The maids did most of the tending to the elderly and the white women: Their hair, their nails, if they needed help with bathing, they did all that kind of work for the white women because you know the porters weren’t supposed to deal with white women. They didn’t do as well as the porters, they didn’t make as much money. And a lot of time they were on there taking care of the white women’s babies while their babies were at home. So they did have to sacrifice to be on there. But it was a job. You could earn some tip money. And you could see some of the country as well. But they worked really hard and were not treated well at all.
Christine: One of the challenging things was the maids were frequently the only women on the train. There would be a maid and there would be a lot of porters and conductors and brakemen and so on. Eventually – particularly as women’s fashions changed and women on the train no longer needed help lacing up their corsets – the maids began to become smaller and smaller in number on the trains. Then they were encouraged within the union to move from being actual union activists with membership to the women’s auxiliaries. But they were an important part of the history and have been largely relegated to the margins.
You the say the maids were often the only women on the trains. Were some of them raped, as Juba was?
Sumption: Certainly there was sexual harassment. There are some accounts of maids on the train being harassed particularly by conductors. It’s not heavily documented but we did do a certain amount of thinking about how common harassment and rape are among women in our time and how little that has been spoken of and used that as an imaginative leaping off point.
What are some of the men’s issues in the play?
West: Sylvester has a sense of feeling emasculated, and emasculation leads to a lot of problems. Not being able to provide in a certain way, not being able to protect – those are assumed roles for men. And then when that is cut off or the man is inept or the man is incapable of or prevented from providing, then what do you do with that? And you see sometimes outbursts of violence, turning it on the woman as if it’s her fault that I feel less than a man, you know, as opposed to what is the real source here. But the real source is, as Juba says, is you can’t say that to a white man.
Christine: I think there is an effort on Cheryl’s part to reclaim an image of black manhood that is so denigrated in a lot of culture, that view of black men that they’re gangsters, they don’t take care of their children, they’re criminals. So she’s really looking at, “What about the man who is responsible for his children? The one who does care about what happens to the next generation, who is really struggling to meet his responsibility?”
Peterson: As a director, I always feel like I’m going into a culture and a world I have to learn about, even if it’s ethnically similar to me it’s always about investigating myself, so it doesn’t feel that different to me. It’s an exploratory and educational process for me in some ways, but the job feels the same to me, which is to tell the story in an exciting way, looking for clarity and contrast and finding a way to fluidly give it physical life. That’s my job no matter what. … The world of the Pullman porters is a very important part of American history but not something that people know a lot about and so I think for all of us, it’s still kind of a world that we need to investigate.
Butler: There are times it’s extremely challenging. I will not lie. I know a lot of people like to say,”Oh it’s no different working with a white director.” It is different. There are times that you have to talk them off the ledge. I think Lisa understands human emotion a great deal, and I think there were times that she would say certain things to me and I would be like, “Mmm, I understand from a woman’s standpoint from you, but African American women don’t respond that way about that.” I had to show her a lot. I had to say, “I don’t think she would be as angry as you think she would be.” I said, “Juba can’t spend the rest of her life being angry with him as much as she is disappointed in him.” Because to be angry like that all the time, that means I consider myself a victim. She will play a man. African American women will play a man to the end of their lives, more than we would go, “Oh I just really miss you.” Huh-uh. I might be thinking that, but I’m not going to say it.
Lisa asked a lot of questions of Cheryl, and I think she’s very good at allowing us to come to the process and we are learning from her and her putting us in good places on stage but her also learning historically some of the things that African Americans go through that she couldn’t get to. She couldn’t get to it because it’s an experience. You can’t learn it, you live it. So there’s some things she can’t help me with. She can ask me about it and I try to talk her through it so she understands it so that when she’s directing me she keeps me on the straight and narrow of that and we don’t get off track. But it is very very different dealing with a white director on a black piece. You do have to be more sensitive to them, you do have to explain a little bit more what’s going on. I’ve worked with lots of white directors on a black piece and as long as they’re open the process is good.
Who is Juba?
Butler: Juba is a woman that lives in the moment. She’s learned to live in the moment because of things that have happened to her in her life. The few women who were extremely prominent during that period had a lot of power and men worked for them. So she’s strong, she’s ballsy, she’s glamorous, and she’s got a lot of tenderness in her but she’s got to cover it up because if not she’ll continue to get stepped on. She has to cover it up because if not she’ll get hurt again and again and again. But she’s really full of life. She’s totally in the moment. She has to live in the moment.
Her past made her who she is, though. Juba is not really her name. She used to work as a maid on the train, and this is the first time she’s been back on that train and she’s coming back as a big star. It’s not a ride she wants to take, it’s a ride she has to take. And so she protects herself on this ride. And it’s quite a ride for her.
Sumption: She was one of the first characters that Cheryl envisioned. She knew she wanted to write about the porters, she knew it would be a generational play because she wanted to depict how different men in different points in time look at race relations and family and responsibility and so on. And she always knew she wanted to have a blues singer on that train, partly influenced of course by the fact that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were these towering figures of the blues. Bessie Smith famously had her own railroad car so that she was really traveling in style. So Cheryl wanted to give some sense of what that was like.
Butler: She gets on the train only focused on the fact that I’ve got to get to New Orleans on this particular train and that I do not want to be on. She’s got her band with her, she’s a major star, it’s the same night as the heavyweight fight with Joe Louis. She thinking maybe I’ll just get on this train, stay a little under the radar and people will leave me alone. It just so happens that her porter happens to be the man that helped save her life, which takes her back to a place that she never expected to go.
Sumption: Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies was one of the things that really influenced my thinking about Juba as a figure. She talks about how there’s this prevailing image of the black woman of the period being this tragic figure and she does this breakdown of the lyrics and talks about how they are defiant bordering on violent and just claiming their independence and strength in the world.
Butler: Juba is going for it. She’s going to rise above it no matter what. She’d love to take you along for the ride and she’s ready to go. But if not, that’s okay.
Talk about her relationship with Sylvester.
Sumption: One of the great conflicts of the play is 26-years later he is still absolutely wrapped up in what he didn’t do and how he didn’t help her and she’s long since gone. She hasn’t forgotten it, but his inability to move on from that is kind of why she rejects him. She needs to be seen as her own human being who found ways to survive and thrive despite what men did. And in a way to her at this point the men are irrelevant. They’re there, but she knows that’s it’s on her to live.
Butler: He always talks about everything but what he should be talking to her about. He’s trying to talk about the union, and she’s like excuse me? You want to talk about the Pullman Porter union? Get out of my face. Why do you keep talking to me about something I don’t care about? If you want to talk to me and you want me to respond to you in a positive way, you got to start out better. She doesn’t care about that. So he kind of shoots himself in the foot because he never just says “I’m sorry.” He never talks about the elephant in the middle of the room.
African American women don’t have time to sit around and wait on men to call us crying in your spoiled milk about what you woulda coulda shoulda done. I was the one that suffered and now you want me to feel sorry for you? Get away from me. You really want me to feel sorry for you when it happened to me? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to work. So that’s why every time they meet she just kind of stomps off or she gets angry, and it’s that thing that a lot of black men will say to us: “Why are you angry all the time?” Really? Why am I angry all the time? Really? If I have to tell you, it isn’t worth talking about.
What’s the relationship between trains and the blues?
Sumption: I think the primary thing that we were looking at was the notion that when the Emancipation Proclamation happened was also the time when the railroads were booming. You’ve got people traveling north as part of the Great Migration, and people who were moving to Chicago were bringing the blues with them and finding ways to transform the art form. So it was a boom time that the music was carried by the trains. And it spread African American culture in this really profound way. And so many of the songs of the period are about trains. Frequently the blues is not so much about what is said but how it’s said: You’ve got singers’ voices and instruments that replicate either the moan of the train whistle or the sound of the train running down the tracks and that sense of restlessness and seeking home.
And really people reinventing their lives. Juba does it literally in the sense of making a new human being. That maid is dead and gone. She’s remade herself as this fabulous singer. People moving north as part of the Great Migration were transforming their lives and really figuring out anew what they could do.
Is it just me, or is there some significance to the fact that the trip in the play is the reverse of the Great Migration?
Sumption: One of the things that the Porters are famous for is distributing the African American newspapers, particularly the Chicago Defender, moving those newspapers south and really carrying word of the opportunities that were available up North to people in the South. But also Cheryl really wanted to dig into that notion of what happens when you go back, either literally going back to where you come from or those of us now going back in history and recognizing the contributions of those who came before us, the people who made it possible for us to do what we are able to do now and recognizing that sacrifice, facing up to the pain that our ancestors experienced and celebrating what they accomplished.
Photos (from top) of Cheryl West by Nate Watters, and Lisa Peterson courtesy Arena Stage.