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Theater Mon Sep 09 2013

Pullman Porter Blues Takes A Train Trip Through Time

For Chicagoans, the word "Pullman" brings to mind, the unique architecture of the neighborhood located in the far south side of the city; however, for African-Americans, it means much more: the legacy of the Pullman Porters.


In the late 1860s, engineer George Pullman, creator of the "Pullman sleeping car," employed large numbers of black men (former slaves) as Pullman Porters, who worked as "humble" servants to patrons who rode sleeper cars during America's thriving railroad industry. "Many Black Americans wanted to get this job," said Tony Award-winning actor Cleavant Derricks, who stars as Sylvester Sykes in Cheryl West's Pullman Porter Blues, opening this weekend at The Goodman Theatre. "It was dignified, you had to wear uniforms [and] you got to travel and see the country."

Pullman Porter Blues, directed by Chuck Smith, is the story of a family of men representing "three generations of African-American Pullman porters on the cusp of unionization in the 1930s." Here, Derricks talks about the cultural importance of the story and its place in American history, working with director Chuck Smith, and what he wants audiences to take away from the play.

The part of West's script that stood out for him:

I promise you will be pleased with what she's written--it's really wonderful. When I got the script, I was moved by the family of men--the generations of a grandfather, father, and a son, and what she has captured with that. You really don't run across this type of story for African-American men that often.

On the play's impact:

If you're any kind of actor worth your salt, you look for something like this. I was so moved by it; it is not an African-American piece--it is an American piece that happens to have African-Americans involved in the storytelling.

The play's historical relationship to Lee Daniels' The Butler and whether it could also successfully translate from the stage to the big screen:

I know it can. Unfortunately, I haven't seen it yet, but I will. I have family and friends who have seen it and that's the first thing they tell me--that it reminds them so much of the Pullman Porters.

On generations of Chicagoans, and people in general, who may be unaware of the Pullman Porter era:

There a lot of young kids who are coming up now who don't know anything about the Pullman Porters or their history, and it's not just one generation; honestly it is two to three generations. A lot of times, people don't want to look at the past because they have uneasy feelings about it; when I looked at the sides, I said, "Okay, I don't wanna do another story like "Oh, we're beat down" and "This is after slavery" or whatever, but that is just the backdrop. The story is really a family story--that's really what it is and that's what I would love for the audiences to understand.

On working with director Chuck Smith:

If you talk to him, he will tell you how I feel about him. I look at him and say to myself, "This is one of the last people that I've run across who really understands actors and understands how to get out of an actor what it is they need to get out of an actor." This is my first time working with him and I don't want it to be my last.

Being back in Chicago after 30 years:

The city is absolutely beautiful; for anyone reading this that is outside of Chicago, you've got to come in and see what they've done with the city--it is unbelievable. The people are wonderful and there's so much culture here. It's so inviting; you wanna be out there everyday in it.

On what audiences should take away from the play:

It's an American story--what I want people to understand and get out of it is that it's not a story that beats up on "white against black"--it's just telling the story as it was at that time in America. I think the audience will be proud of this; it's based on truth, a lot of understanding, where the country has come from, and where we're going.


Pullman Porter Blues runs September 14-October 20 in the Goodman's Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn; tickets are $25-$75 and are available online, by phone, 312-443-3800, or at the box office. Visit for more information.

Photo courtesy: Dean La Prairie.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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