Questions for Seattle Playwright Cheryl West

The award-winning playwright discusses Pullman Porter Blues, premiering at Seattle Rep.

BD: How did you come up with the idea/storyline for Pullman Porter Blues?
CW: First, the history of the Pullman porters is a great American story, a story of this country’s first organized black labor union. This accomplishment was no small feat and one that cost many lives and even more jobs. Considered some of the best-employed black workers, porters were men with prestige who owned their own homes, earned steady wages and respect from their communities and had unmatched access to famous entertainers, politicians and sports figures.

However, their working conditions and compensation for the number of hours worked were abysmal.  I knew this was a story that intrigued me and would continue to intrigue me as I crafted a story built around three generations of   fathers and sons—the oldest having worked as a Pullman porter for fifty years—men who would fight to keep their honor, autonomy and dignity in the face of struggle and familial misunderstandings. Work is what these men count on but it’s also symbolic of what pulls them apart and that tension is the spine of the play.

Second, my late grandfather provided much inspiration. He worked on the postal trains and after his retirement, he loved to tell stories about working for the railroad, an occupation of which he was incredibly proud. And yet it was an occupation that created much tension in his ability to stand as a man when others, because of their own racism and shortsightedness, saw him as less than one. This theme is further explored in Pullman. 

BD: How was the experience of writing a play as part of the Rep's New Play Program different from your usual playwriting process?
CW: Sometimes a playwright will write a play and then approach a theatre about producing the play. Other times a playwright merely has an idea that excites the theatre enough to commission its further development. The latter is how Pullman Porter Blues came into fruition. It is a big show with an additional musical element; thus it needed workshops and readings to develop into a realized production for audiences to now hopefully enjoy.

BD: You seem to be drawn to writing stories about families—specifically the friction between the generations. Why?
CW: Simply put the family nurtures, develops, and then teaches us who we really are. Eventually, we all have to liberate ourselves from our families or them from us, a process that can be painfully polarizing and yet utterly necessary. Of course it’s a process with inherent drama, humor and if you’re lucky, some sense of catharsis. Storytellers get to reinvent this process over and over again as they search for new meaning through their creations. Mostly, I’m committed to using my art to understanding our common humanity.

BD: Did you know from the outset that you wanted live music in the play?
CW: I thought the story I wanted to tell was best told as a play with music and yes, I knew Blues music would be in the play from the beginning. Blues has the uncanny ability to express a mood, emotion and a need simultaneously. So I knew that the blues would help my characters say what they feel and feel what they can’t say.

BD: What was your working process with composer Jmichael like?
CW: This is the second project on which Jmichael and I‘ve worked. The first was an actual gospel musical titled Rejoice. We have a great, collaborative relationship and he’s a consummate musician. For Pullman, he’s done all new arrangements. Except for the underscoring and some of the incidental music, most of the songs are published songs and were initially suggested in the script. The music and the band are exceptional; thus new music could evolve as we go through the rehearsal process.

BD: What themes of the play do you think will resonate with contemporary audiences?
CW: The themes of love, sacrifice and redemption are what makes any dramatic ride universal and current. These are all themes explored in the play.  Parents in the play to some degree all want their offspring to achieve more than they ever thought possible for themselves. The story is set in 1937 at a time when our country was reeling from the Depression with its soup lines, homelessness and rampant unemployment. Today our country struggles with the same economic and societal ills. History and art have much to teach us about our ability to cope and our ability to be inspired as well as to inspire others. If nothing else, for two hours in a darkened theatre we get to communally experience the same story and maybe feel less alone. 

SEE IT: Pullman Porter Blues runs 9/27–10/28 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St.; 206.443.2222;