After each performance of "Pullman Porter Blues," the lobby of the Goodman Theatre has been alive with talk both wistful and outraged, a weird if understandable mix given the complex legacy of George Pullman and the rail car company he created here.
After listening to more than a few of these after-show assessments, I will take the liberty of giving you composites of some of the words spoken and the people speaking them.
From a 70-something white man or woman: "I used to love those trains. My favorite was the 20th Century Limited, Chicago to New York and back again. It was a luxurious way to travel and the porters were always gentlemen and took good care of us."
From a 30-something African-American man or woman: "Those porters were nothing but slaves in nice clothes. I don't know how people could travel that way."
Chicago-born Cheryl West wrote "Pullman Porter Blues."
She says: "Yes, for some, it is a nostalgic portrait and for others something else, something less pretty. For me, writing is how I make sense of the world, and I wanted to do justice to the story of the porters. These were men of great dignity, early activists for the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Yes, they made a living and helped form the core of the black middle class, but they endured vast humiliations as well."
West's play is set on one night in 1937, aboard the Panama Limited, a train headed south from Chicago to New Orleans. My colleague Chris Jones reviewed the play when it opened a few weeks ago. He wrote: "This is a story that belongs in downtown Chicago. … (The Pullman porters), and the women who also served on the Panama Limited, were Chicago's ambassadors and a conduit for those who would follow them, hopefully traveling in the other direction from the one that gave them the blues."
The story of Pullman porters began in the wake of the Civil War, when the Chicago-based Pullman Palace Car Company created the concept of luxury train travel with sleeper cars, upscale decor, fine dining and first-class service. Pullman hired hundreds of former slaves to do the chores, and generations of black workers followed.
Those who yearn for those days (and nights), which ended in the 1960s, might now be satisfied by Pullman Rail Journeys, a new company that has renovated Pullman cars — some at a cost of more than $1 million — that had been rusting away at various freight yards throughout the country. Ten of these restored cars started riding the rails last autumn, on overnight trips twice a week between Chicago and New Orleans, with plans to start traveling to New York next year. The cars carry multiracial service crews. (See travelpullman.com).
Earlier this week, a partnership was to have begun between Pullman Rail Journeys and the Old Town School of Folk Music. Under the banner "Reuniting the American Songbook and the Golden Age of Rail Travel," musicians Mark Dvorak and Chris Walz were scheduled to perform in the lounge car during selected trips.
That journey did not take place due to air conditioning problems with the train, but Dvorak is eager to get on board, saying: "It is a thrill to represent the Old Town School of Folk Music on this historic collaboration. I always love working with my picking buddy Chris Walz, and it will be fun to bring Steve Goodman's classic song to life on the very train where he wrote it some 44 years ago." (The Panama Limited changed its name to the City of New Orleans in the late 1960s, thus giving title to Goodman's famous tune).
One of Pullman Rail Journeys' slogans is "An American icon. Fully restored." And not cheap: Prices range from $2,850 one way to New Orleans for a premium A-class master suite for two (full private bathroom, shower and double bed) to $500 for a top bunk D-class single berth.
A shorter trip will take you to the Far South Side Pullman neighborhood, where you can see what remains of the town Pullman built after buying 4,000 acres near Lake Calumet in 1880. There were once 1,300 buildings — housing, shops, churches, a library — but no saloons, no vice.
Pullman wanted his workers to be loyal, and clean and sober. He ruled the town like a dictator, his goons regularly entering homes unannounced to inspect for cleanliness.
Not far from there is the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which tells the story of the porters and of Randolph's effort to organize the country's first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, chartered in 1925. (Pullman was virulently anti-union, with tragic consequences when his workers went on strike in 1894).
That union is one of the threads in West's play, and she is pleased that her show has been generating conversations, compelling people to visit the museum and the Pullman neighborhood, creating a ripple effect across the city and through generations.
"I appreciate any efforts to keep this story alive," she says.
"Pullman Porter Blues" has been a hit, recently extended through Oct. 27. There will be no special celebration on Saturday, which marks the 116th anniversary of Pullman's death. He died on Oct. 19, 1897. He was 66 and so generally reviled that his coffin was encased in concrete before being buried at Graceland Cemetery, for fear that his body might be stolen by his enemies or critics.
It is curious and fascinating that he has now come back to "life" on America's rails and in Goodman lobby conversations. Who knows what he might make of it all?
As for West?
"What I have learned is that humanity is complicated," she says.
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