Central to the stage theatre experience is the relationship of the performers and the audience. As I wrote recently about Janis Joplin and My Fair Lady, the audience’s expectations for the productions influence the experience of those plays. During Janis Joplin, the audience needed about half the performance to figure our that they could clap, whoop, and generally act like someone at a concert. Reviews for My Fair Lady came in lukewarm (except for mine) because the reviewers expected to see a good-old boy-meets-girl romance. Arena Stage’s new show, Pullman Porter Blues, succeed because of the dynamic of the actors with their audience.
If you have never heard of the play, neither had I. However, I could do some deconstruction of the title to start developing my expectations. Pullman, this was the railroad company that dominated the rail road era from the post Civil War reconstruction until the mid-20th century. Remember the Pacific Railroad Act of 1861? Porters were mostly African Americans who sought work in northern states via the railroads. While they improved their station and wages by working for the railroads, they also lived in a perpetuation of the social dynamic in which the patron and managers were white and the servers were black. Blues is the music style, that travelled from New Orleans to Memphis to Chicago, carrying the messages of loneliness, isolation, and hopelessness. Put those three words together, and expect a play about oppression.
Most theatres these days identify with niche audiences, selecting scripts that appeal to difference audiences: Shakespeare, classics, contemporary, Broadway musicals, women’s issues, gay agenda, Jewish, Latino, Asian, or African American, or race-blind casting….Arena Stage states it’s core mission is to produce American plays and musicals. Within this genre, Arena Stage acknowledges by it’s script selection that the Washington, D.C. area is home to an educated African American community. Each year, one or two productions appeal to this group. Pullman Port Blues fits this niche.
This is a new play by Cheryl L. West. Ms. West wanted to create a story around the situation of a train run from Chicago to New Orleans, focusing on the behind-the-scenes social interaction of the employees: the conductor, porters, and musicians in the lounge. Three generations of African Americans are represented by Monroe (Larry Marshall) the grandfather who has been working as a porter for 50 years, his son Sylvester (Cleavant Derricks) who has saved all the wages he could to send his son, Cephas (Warner Miller), to college. Cephas is on a training run, to get life experience and to earn some money for college. The conductor, Tex (Richard Ziman), will alternate between making demands of the porters and lamenting that, while he earns three times their wages, he has less success to show than they have. The voice of the musicians, the singer, Sister Juba (E. Faye Butler), provokes everyone with her lyrics on stage and bawdy wit in her private coach room. Lutie Duggernat (Emily Chisholm) is a young rail vagabond who boards the train after her father’s death, hoping to travel south and find her mother. While the porters and musicians represent the best that Reconstruction and Jim Crow era blacks could expect, Lutie represents the forgotten demise of the poor whites: no family, no friends, no home, no education, no hope.
In the course of the play, Cephas gets an “education” in life. Monroe tries to teach him how to behave, with constant work in view of the conductor and demanding passengers, while also slipping messages to other blacks south of the Mason Dixon line about opportunities in the north. Sylvester tries to persuade him to return to college for the summer and organize for the rights of the porters. Sister Juba wants to seduce him but also warn him about the traps of romance, lust, class, and race. Lutie tries to show him that he can make his own decisions and has a gift for teaching, rather than his father’s choice of study for him, to become a doctor. In all of these interactions, we are taught about the opportunities and obstacles that existed for Cephas. Thereby, we might also reflect on our own youthful lessons, successes and failings, all the while signing the blues as the train’s wheels click-clack-clatter along the lines.
Regarding audience expectations, contemporary plays about African American characters set in a historical context will contain themes about continued enslavement and a desire for freedom. This past is not too many generation away still. Looking around the audience before the show, I could see that the majority of the patrons were of African American descent. Many of the groups included members in their teens to thirties. These generations were born after the Civil Right era. They had privileges of access to education and employment opportunities that were more abundant than for the group members in their sixties and seventies. I will be speculating, but I expect that one generation could be passing on their history to another by including them in this type of theatre presentation. As evidence to this, and as observation about African American audiences, they were vocal with hushed exclamations, “Yes”, “Amen”, “Tell them” now and then throughout the performance. Such vocal affirmations from a white audience would be frowned upon.
Moreover, before the show began, I figured out that we happened to be seated in the Baptist section. By the comments that I overheard, including the minister standing up to reach over about five of us to greet someone in the row in front of us and thank her for coming to church that morning. Having attended black Baptist churches on occasion, I have observed that their expectation for congregational participation is different from the Baptist church in which I was reared. Now, I was a little worried that when Sister Juba ripped off a few good lines, such as, ‘…Shit. What are you looking at me for. That’s how I put a period on a sentence.” and, (to Cephas), “You’ve got a smile that makes a praying woman give in…”. But, those ladies in the Baptist section were clapping and shouting “Go sister” without blush or hesitation. Even the minister and men of the congregation were giving each other knowing glances, while trying to maintain dignity.
The success of any public event is knowing your audience. Arena Stage has set the stage for a rousing theatre event with Pullman Porter Blues. May you have the fortune to be seated in the Baptist section.