Playwright Cheryl L. West dishes on her inspiration for the musical currently at Arena Stage.
The musical “Pullman Porter Blues” arrived at Arena Stage in late November, and will continue through January 6. Chronicling three generations of train porters, the show shines a bright light on the important role that opened the doors for countless African Americans. WL Performing Arts caught up with playwright Cheryl L. West to discuss the inspiration behind the production.
Washington Life: What sparked your initial interest in writing plays?
Cheryl West: Well, I was always a writer, even as a kid, but I never showed anybody. It was sort of my way of making sense of the world by keeping journals. I did not know how people made a living doing that. I never met a writer. So, I went into another occupation. I have three degrees, none of which are in theater. Along the way while I was in college, I met someone who was in theater and he read something I had written. He said “you should make this a play, you have such a good ear.” The first time I was in an audience, that magic at that moment…I have never been able to duplicate that feeling and that is how I know that I was home.
WL: What specifically made you decide to focus on the role of the Pullman porter for this play?
CW: The Pullman porters were, first of all, men of dignity. When I rode the first train for the first time, I just thought, boy these are such clean men. They were so impeccable and so kind. They were our first recognized African-American labor union. My grandfather worked on the postal train and he used to be so nostalgic and romantic about the train and how much it allowed him to see the country. So after I started doing all the research, I discovered many stories and aural histories. They were the first men wearing suits and ties coming into the middle class off the plantations. So, there was this long history about these men and how hard they fought to make the union. It took them 12 years, many of whom were thrown off the trains, beaten up and lost their jobs. It was a long, difficult and humiliating process. Yet, they were able to send their children to college [and] train some of our people in Congress, as well as lawyers and doctors. It is just amazing what they were able to do by saving tips of nickels and pennies to educate their children.
WL: How can you use this story of the Pullman porters to inspire excellence in the journey of a young person?
CW: Well, I think that the road that African Americans have traveled, all the privileges that we enjoy today are off the backs of someone yesterday. We have an African-American president. That was by no accident and was a lot of hard work. That was all the people in the Civil Rights Movement who took beatings, canes and dogs. All of that led up to having an African-American President. The Pullman porters first got on the train around 1870, right after Emancipation. They were then able to educate people who are now lawyers and congressman. All of that shows what we can do as a people, so any young person coming to see a show like “Pullman Porter Blues” will have a sense of honor and the pride of a job done well. Even what we go through today, there are lessons to be learned from what those men went through, because they persevered. And living today, still have to persevere.
WL: What has been the challenge of communicating this sensitive African-American theme to sometimes predominately Caucasian audiences?
CW: Well, [at] the premiere in Seattle, every night the audiences were predominately Caucasian. We worked really hard to mobilize the African-American community. People came to the story in different ways. For example, there is a young Caucasian stowaway. I think all of the people identified with the idea of hard work. More than anything, the universal theme of the play is that we want our children to do better than we did. There is a saying that says “the more specific the story, the more universal it becomes.”
WL: Are there any specific characteristics that you look for in the actors that portray the characters in a play such as this?
CW: Integrity. When you cast a play like this, you want people on your team who have a sense of putting the truth as the playwright wrote it on stage, not playing it for the front row and the respect of the work. Sometimes, there are actors who can’t move past themselves. Audiences are very smart and sense when that integrity is not there. When you have a company that respects the work, that will come through. When that happens, you have a good show on your hands!
For more information and tickets, click here or call Arena Stage at (202)488-3300.
Petersburg, Va. native Patrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and an M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price. McCoy has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our time, including Renée Fleming, Denyce Graves, Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence Brownlee. Listen to these interviews and others at Blog Talk Radio. McCoy may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.