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CultureMob Interview: ‘Pullman Porter Blues' playwright, Cheryl L. West, earns it by (gasp) writing

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Cheryl L. West, playwright.

Writing is considered tough work for just about everyone, especially in terms of getting paid and making a living. It’s one of those professions that everyone who knows language thinks he/she can do. It’s a bit like singing, which if you have ever watched the awful auditions for American Idol, you know is strictly not at all true.

But even the best poets and the best playwrights have an unusually difficult time making a living just by penning their finest artistic efforts. Cheryl L. West is one of a handful of playwrights that can claim to be making enough money on her playwriting (almost alone) to call it a real living.

She says, “I make my total living from writing.” Similar to playwrights like Tony Kushner, she’s also had occasional income from tv and movies, often from turning her own playwriting into video projects. “I write also for film and tv periodically,” she adds.

Time lines for writing plays and getting them produced can be wildly different, one play to another. Cheryl says, “Some plays come to you quickly and some take a lot longer. You have to support yourself throughout those years. And even when you produce a play, it doesn’t mean it will be financially successful. I always write. I’ve been blessed to do it and still make a living. But it’s often been a lot of anxiety.”

Her subject matter is also unique, because she focuses on African-American issues and history. Her writing is a reflection of her heritage and her birthright. She is a past-master in bringing tough circumstances to life on stage, helping diverse audiences connect with her characters, and letting people understand others they may never have come in contact with, personally.

Her first play, Before It Hits Home (1990) dealt with a black family and AIDS. Jar the Floor (1991) uses four generations of African-American women to tell the story. Similarly, her brand new play at the Seattle Repertory Theater Pullman Porter Blues has three generations of men demonstrate the huge shifts in American experience within one single family. It is a history of a particularly important slice of African-American profession (the porter) – one that she says opened the door to allowing blacks to become middle-class Americans.

CultureMob interviewed her about the writing process for this new play, after opening night. Cheryl reflects on how long it took from conception to full production.

“It was first commissioned about five years ago. It was always my idea. I went to David Esbjornson (then artistic director of the Rep). We did lots of readings (with different) casts along the way and now we have a full production of it.”

Cheryl has had a very long relationship with the Rep and with some of Seattle’s other now-defunct theaters. “I came here years ago with the Multicultural Playwrights Festival at The Group Theatre. What you won was a workshop of a week or two of working on your play. I worked on Before It Hits Home. That play went to Arena Stage (in Washington, DC, where it premiered).

“A year after that, the Empty Space premiered Jar the Floor. I always thought it was a beautiful city. I moved here in 1999.

“Seattle Rep has been a big supporter of mine through several artistic directors. Dan Sullivan did the first show of mine, Holiday Heart. When Sharon Ott was the artistic director at the Rep, she invited me to be artistic associate for about a year.”

Cheryl talks about the unique nature of Pullman porters and how important they were in the evolution of African-American pride in a profession, and the job of porter’s cultural effect. “(The Pullman porters) were our first black labor union. They were very important to the civil rights movement that followed. They were a cultural conduit for getting information to the South by taking newspapers down to the South.

“Many people wouldn’t have known that there were opportunities in the North and they were very instrumental in that migration. We had to cut it (back in this play) but we included (a bit of information about) the newspapers. They would (also) bring food and sometimes throw it off the trains.”

Cheryl reminds us about the abject poverty of the times, where there were no food stamps, no social security, no medical help, no real foster care system, and huge educational deficits, as well. “Those newspapers would go through several people. They (people who got ahold of a paper) would find someone who could read and gather to hear it read aloud and hear about job openings in the North. Otherwise, how would people still working in the rural areas have any information about anything other than that? Particularly if they couldn’t read. And people who owned plantations didn’t want workers to hear about jobs since they were cheap labor down South.”

One of the characters in the play is a stowaway teenage girl, Lutie. “The Lutie character was very prevalent at that time. They would sneak (onto trains) to make money. With women, there was definitely prostitution. Sometimes conductors would turn a blind eye and get paid off. A lot of business men travelling (wanted prostitutes), especially on the upper crust trains.

“Depression times, a lot of young people would jump trains to get somewhere where there might be jobs. Families abandoned young people. We have people living in cars, now, and not being able to stay together. We didn’t have foster care back in the ‘30s. So what options were there for young women who’ve been abandoned?”

Cheryl always planned that the play would be on a train and would use three generations of men in a family. “I always knew it would somehow be the whole play on the train, one night, one journey.”

The play also has a great deal of music with a troupe of musicians onboard, giving the passengers some entertainment. “When doing research, we saw there was sometimes entertainment on the train. A (picture of a) piano on the club car, for instance. Porters were asked to sing, entertain. Some of them could, some couldn’t. Many entertainers traveled on the trains. Bessy Smith (Note: American blues singer, considered one of the greatest singers of her era, who died in 1937) had her own car that she would lease out to herself because it was so dangerous for an African-American woman to travel by herself.”

She also had to keep current casting requirements in mind. In years back, plays could have casts of 15 or 20 people, no problem. Paying that many actors has now become an issue with theaters. So, we don’t see any white passengers in this story, besides the stowaway. “In terms of seeing any other passengers on the train, it would be great, but with the economics being what it is, the smaller cast you can have to tell the story the better. This play is asking you to imagine that there are passengers. The people on the train are linked by circumstances or a history among all of them.”

Cheryl wants to convey a specific theme. “The overall theme of the play is survival and what choices we make to that end. Cephas (the youngest) has to make a choice about what being a man is. He thinks he’s trying to help (Lutie), even though he has been warned not to have anything to anyone white. He goes against that because his morals are different. He’s maybe even more courageous than his father was 26 years ago. (Note: There is a subplot in the play about a traumatic event.) But his father’s behavior was from a different place. We make different choices based on where we are, and how much courage we have given our circumstances.

“You’re telling a particular story of survival in generations in different ways, black manhood and pride and survival as a family. You ask the audience to enter it with you and inform it by their own interpretation. We all know they could be killed or they could survive. You ask the audience, ‘What do you think? What do you feel?’ You don’t want to tie it up and say this is what you should be feeling. That’s not the writer I am.”

While the play has a lot of humor, great music, and upbeat moments, there is a lot of inherent danger: in the plot, in history, in driving a train into the Deep South where even touching a white person could cause racists to lynch a black man. Cheryl acknowledges that inherent danger. “The audience will draw their own conclusions. It doesn’t end happily, everything tied up. I never intended it to. Is Tex (the conductor) going to make good on his promise (to have them lynched)? Are they going to survive? Life is not about showing them getting lynched, it’s about showing that no matter what comes to them, they have a history of taking care of each other.”

The play opened on October 3rd and Cheryl has already heard a lot of feedback. Some of her favorite comments are people’s memories of train rides. “Their first train ride or their grandparents taking them on the train. Selling sandwiches to porters. An 80 year old told me about being on a train at age 8 or 9 and porters took care of her. People tell me it’s allowed them to remember some wonderful times in their lives attached to trains, and the kindness of porters. Or it’s a way to think about how they didn’t notice the porters among the great service, and what the cost was of providing the service.

“If the service is good, you don’t think about what might be going on with that person. A lot of people were touched by having not thought about what the porters were going through, and the sacrifices they made for their children so they didn’t have to be on their knees and scrub behind people.”

This production is also slated to go on to the Arena Stage, November 23rd to January 6th.  Cheryl says there could be changes. “This is the first production. We learned something from it. We’ll continue to work on it. There will probably be changes between now and Arena Stage. The audiences have been very responsive with interesting comments. Some are fruitful for me as an artist. All are welcome.”

For more information or tickets until October 28th, go to http://seattlerep.org/Plays/1213/PP/Synopsis.

Cleavant Derricks, Warner Miller, Larry Marshall as three generations of Pullman porters. (Photo by Kevin Rosinbum)