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Retired Boeing engineer and former railroad worker Thomas Gray.  (Photo: Marcie Sillman)

Retired Boeing engineer and former railroad worker Thomas Gray. (Photo: Marcie Sillman)

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Seattle Repertory Theater Opens 50th Season With 'Pullman Porter Blues'

Marcie Sillman

Seattle Repertory Theater opens its 50th season Wednesday, October 3 with a world premiere. The new play explores a livelihood that doesn't exist anymore, anda chapter of American history that many people don't know about. KUOW's Marcie Sillman has more.


For most of the 20th century, luxury travel meant train travel. If you had the money, you got yourself a berth in a Pullman car. Like Claudette Colbert, in this scene from the 1942 comedy "Palm Beach Story:"

Colbert: "Where's the conductor?"

Porter: "He got off in Raleigh, that's where he lives, just a little ways out. Beautiful countryside there."

Colbert: "You don't seem to understand. My clothes are lost. Shut up."

Porter: "No ma'am. They ain't lost. Nothin' ever gets lost on a Pullman. They safe all right."

Like this fictionalized Pullman porter, thousands of African American men worked on the railroads between 1870 and the mid–1960s. Although train jobs were steady work, they didn't guarantee the men who held them any more respect than Claudette Colbert gave the porter in "Palm Beach Story." When Cheryl West was a little girl, she took a train trip with her family. West still remembers the porters.

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

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 main characters are three generations of men from a single family. Monroe Sykes, the grandfather, got his porter job after the Civil War ended. His son, Sylvester, is also a porter. But unlike his father, Sylvester finds the job demeaning. He's working to form a union. Sylvester's son, Cephas, has taken the porter job his grandfather got him. But Sylvester wants his son to go to college.

Scene: "Cephas, your grandfather does like his fairy tales, building up life on the train as something special. What if it's me? He's just a simple man. He doesn't know any better. Simple keeps you alive, Sylvester. Everybody can't be as smart as you. It's not about being smart, but I know my son. He's too smart for this. He's your son, but I had a hand in raisin' him. All the boy was tryin' to do was learn. Learn what dad? The plantation shuffle? Yessuh, boss suh, conductor. Lettin' that man pet on you like some animal out the zoo? Is that what you're tryin' to teach my boy? I'm tryin' to teach him about havin' a job, keepin' a job. He has a job, goin' to school."

A Pullman porter job was one of the best available to African American men for most of the 20th century. Playwright Cheryl West says it was a leg up to the middle class for men who might have been born to slaves.

West: "Coming off the plantation, getting to see the country, when all you've known is slavery and plantations, getting to wear a suit, and a tie, that was amazing for that time."

Maybe. But it was also incredibly hard work. Porters were on call for the duration of a train trip, often two or three days. They delivered food and cleaned up after sick passengers. The wages were low. By the mid–20th century, activists like Cheryl West's character Sylvester began to agitate for a union. It took 12 years, but the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African American union, finally signed a labor agreement with the Pullman company in 1937. Cheryl West decided to explore this milestone chapter of history through the eyes of one family:

West: "Because there are universal issues in a family: how do you propel your child to be what you couldn't be? That's one of the central themes in the play: How do you survive in a world where you are a man, but you are not treated as such? You do a man's work, but you get a child's pay."

"Pullman Porter Blues" is likely to resonate with many African Americans with railroad workers in their family trees. Thomas Gray is a retired Boeing engineer. He lives in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood. Gray worked his way through college as a train attendant. He pulls out a scrapbook and leafs through some photos:

Gray: "This is my father, around '43 — "

Thomas Gray's father spent 44 years as a Pullman porter, on the Santa Fe Super Chief. The train ferried movie stars and politicians between Chicago and Los Angeles. Gray lived with his grandparents in Albuquerque. He only saw his father when the Super Chief had a layover there:

Gray: "You know, mine is just one of ten thousand other similar families that had the same situation. I, any number of times I've come across other people whose parents, grandparents, had worked as Pullman porters."

"Pullman Porter Blues" is a play with music. The four–piece band and a singer are part of the cast. They portray train passengers. Cheryl West wanted the musical numbers to be completely interwoven with the dramatic action:

West: "And I think blues is so raw and authentic, that it's a way of speaking from the soul. So what the men aren't able to say, they're able to sing."

The Seattle Repertory Theater commissioned "Pullman Porter Blues" five years ago. It's co producing the premier with Arena Stage Theater in Washington, DC. Seattle Rep Artistic Director Jerry Manning says new work like "Pullman Porter Blues" is integral to the Rep's history. Manning points to the many award winning shows that premiered at the theater over the past five decades: Wendy Wasserstein's "Heidi Chronicles," Herb Gardner's "I'm not Rappaport," and Bill Irwin's "Largely/New York," among others.

Manning: "If this theater has made its name nationally, it's because of new work that was done here. For us to launch the 50th anniversary, I can't think of a better way to do it. It's in our DNA."

Manning expects the long development of "Pullman Porter Blues" to have a big payoff on opening night. Playwright Cheryl West is most concerned that her play does justice to the story of the Pullman porters:

West: "I feel very much that I have to do it well, and that it has to exemplify the dignity of those men."

Cheryl West will probably get instant feedback. Thomas Gray and his family will be in the audience for the opening night of "Pullman Porter Blues."

I'm Marcie Sillman, KUOW News.

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