I cannot pinpoint a first memory of my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Gene Campbell because they didn’t come into my life, they were always there. Bettie and Gene were my parents’ friends before I was born; in fact they were the only non-blood relations at my parents’ wedding. Mom and Dad chose to do something small, in the chapel of our church instead of the sanctuary, and only their parents and my dad’s brother’s family were invited. Bettie and Gene, it seems, would not be kept away and they crashed the ceremony. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t mind.
As a little girl, the nights that the Campbells came over to our house were always special. We got dressed up, we had hors d’oeuvres and special drinks, we ate in the fancy dining room. I got to drink sparkling apple juice out of a tiny wine glass. Gene and my Dad would drink Scotch, and to this day the smell of it reminds me of those nights. The women smelled wonderful, too–these were nights for perfume and fancy makeup and staying up late.
My parents traveled with the Campbells, so many of these nights consisted of after dinner slide shows, complete with portable screen and an old school carousel projector. Though I didn’t sit through the slideshows, I used the time when the lights were out and no one was looking to flit from room to room, absorbed in fantastical adventures inspired by the castles of Scotland on the screen.
Going to dinner at the Campbell’s house was even more magical. I think it was the gold flecks painted into the ceiling in their den that made the place sparkle in my little girl’s eyes. I remember at least once classical music playing on the stereo inspired me to dance from room to room, using the architecture of the sunken den to execute a number of fancy leaps, while the grownups sat and talked. The back room contained a number of treasures close to my heart and every visit involved a rediscovery of them: a music box that played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” A wooden duck that could be pulled on a string. Book after book of Peanuts comics. Over successive visits I read them all.
When most of my Christmas and birthday presents were still toys, the Campbells started giving me books. The What Katy Did series filled my desire for more Little House books (eight is not enough!). They gave me Pride and Prejudice long before I knew who Jane Austen was. Bettie also has a knack for picking the perfect piece of jewelry for me. When I moved to New York they visited me there. When I started my own theater company, they donated to it. When I got married Bettie and Gene throw a brunch for the wedding party. When I got divorced they took me out for Mexican food. (What can I say, they know what I like.)
As I write these words, I realize these things sound so quotidian. But the smells, the light, and the words of those books take me back to those nights in body and spirit–in everything but actual time–in a way that assures me the memories are important. I think that because of Bettie and Gene, it is written on my brain that having friends with whom one shares an entire lifetime is a good thing, an important thing, a thing defined not so much by what you celebrate, but that you celebrate together. It’s a thing to get dressed up for. For lifetime friends, you get out the fancy glasses.
The wonderful family that survives my Uncle Gene is a testament to the fact that he lived a wonderful life. Today I call myself aunt to a number of children who are not my biological relatives. If I can ever be anything like as important to them as Bettie and Gene have been to me, I’d consider myself to have done alright.
Thanks so much Uncle Gene for all the books and all the magic and all the love.
Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood announced that it would stop using the term “pro-choice” to define their efforts towards creating and securing reproductive autonomy for women. Though this has led to lots of great discussion about how we should ourselves going forward, Planned Parenthood does not actually intend to replace the label with something else. Any label, they say, would discount the “complexity” of the issues.
As Ann Friedman points out at New York Magazine’s The Cut, the “pro-choice” label came into being in response to the use of “pro-life” by anti-choice activists: Somewhat ironically, it was not a word that the movement chose to define itself. Over time “choice” has, in the general parlance, come to be too closely associated solely with abortion, and therefore does not convey that we are advocating for more than the choice to have an abortion or not. We are advocating for total reproductive autonomy for women, from access to birth control to abortion, IVF, and treatment for STDs to coverage for these things under insurance. The whole shebang.
But we shouldn’t forget that to a certain extent, this widening of the movement was also a reactive move: As anti-s have become more honest about their desire to eliminate not just access to abortion but also to birth control, advocates for reproductive autonomy have had to engage in a conversation connecting the dots between those things in order to debunk specific anti-choice arguments. When Personhood advocates started claiming that the morning after pill is an “abortion pill,” our response was to explain that though in theory the morning after pill could prevent implantation, that’s no reason to outlaw it. It was months before somebody clarified that no, in fact, even in theory, it probably can’t. By then, no one was listening.
We now have the opportunity to define, in our own words and as specifically as possible, the terms of the debate and to improve our branding. Though general terms like “freedom” and “liberty” do broaden the debate to include more than abortion, I am wary of generalizing too much. As cultural catchwords, these broader terms already have connotations, and the right to own a gun or believe in God is very different from the right to bodily autonomy. The prospect of trying to shift people’s thinking enough to where they also identify these terms with reproduction seems to me like rolling the wrong stone up a very steep mountain.
We should instead choose language that expresses what it is that these myriad complex issues that the movement is advocating for have in common. Yes, we are advocating for the right to be free from government intrusion in our private lives, but it’s not intrusion into our property or our speech with which this particular movement concerns itself. We’re arguing against government intrusion into our bodies.
I am also wary of being too wonky and movement-specific. While I can happily spend an afternoon studying the implications of Personhood laws on access to in-vitro fertilization, we cannot expect to win the larger public debate solely by painstakingly delineating the complicated relationships between a broad variety of issues. Nobody signs up for a movement that says, “You’re gonna have to work really hard to make any of the things I’m talking about come true.” They sign up for “Yes, we can.”
Though it’s still a bit clunky for branding purists, being multi-syllabic, I like “pro-reproductive justice.” It both specifies which rights we’re talking about, and–as do labels like social justice and economic justice–includes reference to the fact that simply having rights in law does not always mean having rights in practice.
Then again, if we have to go broad and catchy, I’ve never quite understood why we don’t just retake the higher ground and call ourselves “pro-living.” I am pro- women who want to have children having them. I am pro- women having the freedom to live their lives without children if they don’t want them. I am pro- women living life without fear and being able to have sex without contracting a disease or getting pregnant when they don’t want to. I am pro- living women taking their own health into account before that of an unborn fetus. I am pro- children who are born having a chance at living. I am pro- vaccinations that prevent women from getting STDs that might lead to deadly diseases. I am pro- these things for all living women regardless of their ability to pay for them. I am pro- defining our understandings of pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing according to real life instead of antiquated, patriarchal social values. I am pro-living.
A Woman leans against a bar, drink in hand (gin martini, dirty, extra olives). Other Women and Men mill about, flirting. Man approaches. He speaks with an Italian accent.
Man: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. Wishing you a very lovely beautiful day as you are.
Woman: Okay. Thanks.
Leans in to kiss her. She leans back. Awkward pause.
Man: Have fun and enjoy!
Moves on. Man 2 approaches. He is a bit nervous.
Man 2: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. I think you have such a beautiful smile and eyes and that I love them.
Woman: Huh. Wow. Thanks.
Awkward pause. Man 2 moves one. Man 3 approaches. He poses several times in bicep-enhancing positions.
Man 3: Hey, rockhardabs, here. I value knowing oneself. Hard work. Accomplishing goals.
Woman: Yes. Sure, me too.
Man 3: Right on. (lifts shirt, reveals abs, points at them) Am I right? Am I right?
Woman (muttering into her drink): (Answer privately).
Awkward pause. Man 3 moves one. Man 4 approaches. He is really sweaty.
Man 4: Hello there … (peers at nametag, then just stares at boobs) … you ladies looking for a (does boob juggling gesture) threesome?
Woman: Nope. Not. Nope. Move along. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
Man 4: Hey, that’s –
Woman: Nope. Not. Too late. Move along.
Awkward pause. Man 4 moves on.
Woman: I don’t know if this is going to work. Maybe I should update my profile.
A Bartender appears.
Bartender: What can I get for you?
Woman: Guys who like girls, Ages 30–50, Near me, Who are single, For new friends, short-term dating.
Bartender: Would you date someone who has smoked a cigarette in the last six months?
Woman: Well … smoked one cigarette? Just one? I mean I guess no, I don’t want to date a smoker, but once – it could have been for a show. Or just one night out or something.
Bartender: Yes or no.
Woman: Okay, I guess no.
Bartender: Would you consider yourself extremely honest, sort of honest, or not at all honest.
Woman: Umm, I’m pretty sure honest is a finite value, so you can’t really be extremely honest, you’re either honest or you’re –
Bartender: A, B, or C?
Woman: Jesus. Extremely honest.
Bartender: Coming right up.
Man 5 enters in workout clothes, sweatbands and all. He holds a sign that says, “tightbuns” as he passes in front of Woman. Man 6 does the same; his sign says “cute4x4guy,” but he is not wearing a shirt and is using the sign to obscure his face. Man 7: Uncle_Bob. He looks exactly like your uncle. Man 8: “Stud_27″ is wearing a gray unitard that covers his body and face.
Woman 1: Okay, okay, this is really not working.
Bartender: Perhaps if you answer more questions.
Woman (sighs): I don’t know. Why would anyone want to date me anyway. I mean look at me, I’m sitting here, friendless, helpless, hopeless, unemployed in Greenland.
Collective inhale of shock from everyone in the room. They cease flirting. Freeze.
Woman: Oh, no, I’m not. I was just quoting …
Collective exhale. Unfreeze. They resume flirting.
Woman: Wow. Good kinesthetic response.
Drums her fingernails on bar. Sips drink. Tries to fish olive out of glass but it keeps slipping out of her fingers. Finally puts her mouth to the edge of the glass and uses fingers to spoon it in as she slurps up the remaining gin. Man 9 approaches. He looks like a totally normal, very cool guy. Woman spits olive and gin back into glass as she says,
Woman: (Skip question)!
Awkward pause. Man 9 moves on.
The other people in the room are coupled off now, making out like they’re on a nighttime soap opera (open mouths but no tongue, moving their heads too much side to side, running their hands up and down one another’s backs). Except for one couple. The Woman spies them, lights focus in on them, all the other couples freeze. They are speaking to each other in low tones, looking back and forth from one another’s lips to eyes. She laughs and brushes her hair back. He inhales – you can see the effect of the pheromones on him. She touches his hand casually. He traces a line down the side of her bare arm and rests his hand on her knee. She whispers something in his ear. Again you see him smell her. During all this the Woman has been unconsciously inching forward, closer and closer to the couple. She is too close. Suddenly they notice her, she realizes where she is, the lights change back and the other couples unfreeze.
Woman: I am so. Sorry. How embarrassing. I didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just that–you seem so real. I mean, I don’t know, this bar, you just like really … wow. Yeah. Sorry.
Starts to walk away. The man stops her.
Man: Hey, it’s okay.
Long Pause. Woman stares at them again. They smile.
Woman: So you did it! You actually found each other this way!
Man 10: Sure! We’re a committed couple looking for a playmate. You interested?
Woman: (Softly) D’oh.
She walks slowly back to bar. Resumes position from opening. Collective inhale.
Blackout. End Part One.
… to be continued on the next Internet Dating: A Play.
A Woman leans against a bar, drink in hand (gin martini, dirty, extra olives). Other Women and Men mill about, flirting. Man wearing fedora approaches.
Man: Hi there … (peering at nametag) … TK421. Want to get a drink sometime?
Woman: (Toasting.) Well, I’ve got a drink. Thanks.
Man: WHY DON’T YOU JUST ADMIT YOU DON’T LIKE BALD MEN.
Man storms off.
Woman: Wow. How did I manage to screw that one up?
Man 2 approaches. He carries a baby.
Man 2: Hey there … (peering at her nametag) … TK421. Great profile!
Man 2 offers baby to the Woman. She doesn’t take it. Awkward Pause. Man 2 moves on.
Woman: Jesus, what is this, No Exit? (Looks at audience.) Get it? No Exit?
Awkward Pause. The audience moves on. Man 3 approaches. He is small but not short, a little too young for her, but what the hey. They look at one another for a while, sensing an attraction.
Man 3/Woman (simultaneous): Hi/hey.
Woman: So … (peering at nametag) … THX1138. Hey! I get that!
Man 3: Cool.
He smiles a beautiful smile with just a little crinkle at the corners of his eyes. Runs his fingers through his hair. You see the Woman smell him. It’s nice.
Man 3: Yeah. You know, most kids wanted to be Han Solo. I’ve always felt I’m more of a Luke Skywalker.
Woman (deflating a little but hanging in there): Oh. So …
cute4X4 guy walks by, no shirt, covering face with sign. Man 3 stares at his ass.
Man 3 walks away, following cute4x4guy. Bartender appears.
Bartender: Hey! You know you’ll get more accurate matches if you answer more questions!
Woman: Yeah, I know, it’s just … accurate to what? Some fictionalized idea of the perfect person for me? Someone who on paper has no unacceptables but in reality might be a serial killer? I mean I just feel like maybe we’re doing this backward. I can’t seem to get a sense of anybody.
Bartender: Would you date someone who had ever had a relationship with someone of the opposite sex?
Woman: I mean, ever? Is that really someone’s criteria? And don’t you think there should be at least some attempt at standardization for these questions?
Bartender: Which describes you better, confrontational or non-confrontational?
Woman: That’s exactly what I mean – it’s not an either/or situation.
Bartender: How often do you smoke cigars?
Woman: I’m pretty sure that’s not a question for me.
Bartender: Is it cool for guys to wear earrings?
Woman: I don’t know, is it 1987?
Bartender (exploding): IT’S A COMPUTER PROGRAM FOR GOD’S SAKE JUST ANSWER THE QUESTIONS.
Woman: Computer program? What, like a holodeck? (Awkward laugh. Possibly with snort.)
Bartender (simmering): _
Woman (sheepishly): Martini, please.
Bartender freshens her drink. Disappears.
Woman: I am crushing it.
She leans there a moment, playing with her drink. Spills some. Looks around casually then licks the spill up off the bar. An idea.
Woman: Computer program, huh?
She begins to swish her hands around, manipulating the men around her ala Minority Report et al. She swishes a man into prominence, observes, swishes him to the side, others are brought forward. Some are compared side by side. She starts to giggle. Uses her hands to make the men dance. Poses them in positions of elaborate sexual shenanigans. Does that thing where when you pose men’s bodies like female models in fashion magazines you realize how ridiculous the positions of the female models are.
Woman: So this is what it feels like to objectify people!
Gets a little excited. Slips in her spilled martini and almost falls. The men are all crashed into each other by her waving hands. They stare at her.
Woman: It’s okay! I’m fine. We’re fine. We’re all fine here. (No one responds.) Oh forget it.
Woman returns to the bar. The Men resume circling among the women, flirting.
Woman (shouts at a passing Man): Hey you know what’s wrong with internet dating? Huh? No wingman!
The Man keeps walking. Bartender appears.
Bartender: Woman, you are making a scene.
Woman: Well, it’s what I do! (Looks at the audience.) Get it? Cause I’m (heavily slurring speech) in the theater?
Bartender: Uh-huh. So how does this thing end?
Woman (burping): Probably with a blackout. (Looks at audience.) Get it? Cause I’m dru–
The Woman passes out.
Blackout. End of Part Two.
… to be continued on the next Internet Dating: A Play.
At this sun-deprived point in the year, I wake up pretty much every morning in a big pile of animals. You see as the weather gets cooler, Lucy moves from next to my feet to on my legs to on my stomach to basically on my face. Kathy moves from plastered against the wall opposite me to directly in the other spot in my double bed to smushed up next to me with her head on my pillow. So my waking up is usually a pretty joyous event.
This morning, after enjoying a snuggle with my girls, a big stretch, an inhale of the smell of all that life and all that sleepiness, I said aloud, “Well, this is the day.”
A year ago today my husband left me. Completely out of the blue it seemed at the time, an unbelievable shock, but really it was only the first of many shocks and reckonings to come over the next year as I navigated a world entirely other than my expectations had been, deprived of my former narrative and character and therefore forced to improvise.
Luckily, years of summer camp, Sunday school, VBS, and Methodist retreats have hard-wired certain neural pathways between my brain and body, so that immediately upon saying, “This is the day…” I began to sing aloud:
This is the day, this is the day, this is the day that the Lord hath made (that the Lord hath made)
We will rejoice, we will rejoice, we will rejoice and be glad in it (and be glad in it)!
With subsequent verses celebrating,
This is the cat, this is the cat, this is the cat that the Lord hath made (that the Lord hath made)…
and of course
This is the dog, this is the dog, this is the dog that the Lord hath made (that the Lord hath made)…
And it has in fact been a pretty good day. I worked on a craft project: designing, tracing, cutting, pasting, glittering. The K-dog and I went for a walk. I had a great workout. I made myself a bowl of ground turkey, taco seasonings, spinach, black beans, and low-fat cheese. A package arrived: my costume and some decorations for my upcoming Christmas Birthday Burlesque.
This day last year wasn’t Pearl Harbor, just my own personal unexpected disaster. It happened, a year ago today, and it’s still true that I will never be the same. Yet in some of the most profound ways, I am figuring out how to be who I am and always have been despite the ongoing de- and re-construction of my life. I love my animals. I love crafts. I love that the holidays are now, as a grownup, just as magical as they were for me as a child, only now it’s because of the giving instead of the receiving. I love that I’m having a party next week.
I suppose if God found us mysterious enough that “He” had to be born and live as one of us for 33 years in order to understand us, it’s no surprise that I’m still as baffled about the meaning of life as I was 365 days ago. I mean I’m not even omniscient.
Whatever, whyever we are, I’m very grateful to be spending this seasonal celebration of God-attempting-to-understand-man-by-being-born-as-one-of-us with the friends and family that have been invaluable to me in understanding my own cataclysm his past year.
Also. Crafts. I will rejoice and be glad in them.
Cross posted at Ms.
What do you get when you combine passionate individuals determined to survive with multi-generational family drama and two key moments in African American history? A pretty great new play, that’s what.
Opening November 23 at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, Pullman Porter Blues, by Cheryl L. West (Jar the Floor, Before it Hits Home), takes place aboard a Pullman train headed from Chicago to New Orleans on June 22, 1937, the night Joe Louis won the world heavyweight boxing championship. Three generations of Sykes men are on the train working as porters: The eldest, Monroe, proud of the life he built for his family by working in the first paid job available to freed slaves; Sylvester, a union organizer determined to better conditions for porters and become a conductor himself; and Cephas, a well-educated young man oblivious to the hardships his father and grandfather faced and naïve as to the obstacles in his path. The men are joined on this fateful night by a blast from their past: Juba, once a maid on the trains, now a blues-singing superstar.
Starting in the 1860s, jobs created by the Pullman Train Company contributed significantly to the rise of an African American middle class. Though the history of the Pullman porters is well documented, not much attention has been paid to Pullman maids. According to Christine Sumption, the researcher/dramaturg for the show:
At the time the Pullman company was getting started and offering this incredible service to wealthy, white passengers–this meticulous service all down the train line given to them by African American men–they also recognized that it was perhaps inappropriate to have black men putting white women to bed. So they brought in African American women to serve as maids on the train, and these women literally did everything for these white women. They would do their manicures, they would take care of them when they were sick, help them get showered, take care of the children, take care of the elderly. They basically did much of what the porters did, and on a much more personal level.
Though initially welcomed as full union members, the maids were eventually relegated to the women’s auxiliaries. But without their work, the first union led by African Americans–The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters–might never have been. Due to tough economic times and changing fashions–so that women passengers needed less help dressing–by 1937 the company no longer employed maids.
Juba’s experience as a maid on a Pullman train did not end well: After being raped by a white conductor while her lover, Sylvester, stood by unable to help, she fled the trains and made a new life for herself. Now a successful entertainer, she is rich enough to rent her own sleeping car for a trip with her band. Unbeknownst to her, Sylvester and his father Monroe, who nursed Juba back to health after her attack, are on the train, bringing about a kind of reckoning for them all.
these queens of the blues who, in defiance of the time and expectations of who they were supposed to be, were out there–aggressive, independent, assertive–making their own way and claiming their sexuality and their right to be not just singers but managers of bands and managers of their own lives, with power and actual wealth.
In fact Juba’s past is more of an issue for Sylvester than it is for her. His inability to protect her in her moment of need has driven him to fight to improve working conditions, pay and promotional opportunities for porters in the union. (His long battle will end in success two months after the date that the play concludes, when the Pullman Company finally recognized the union and signed a collective bargaining agreement.)
Asked about the danger of the character of Juba serving more as a dramaturgical tool for Sylvester’s redemption than as a character in her own right, director Lisa Peterson tells the Ms. Blog,
Now it’s true that Juba had this terrible thing happen to her in the past in which she felt powerless, but in response to having had that happen she’s developed this really aggressive mask, [a] way of moving through the world. So [she’s] fighting…Sylvester’s problem, his inability to help Juba, that’s his problem. That’s a guilt that he carries.
Playwright Cheryl L West concurs:
When a man is not able to protect his woman, a common occurrence for black men during slavery and post slavery, it is that type of failure that would indeed haunt him every time he closed his eyes for the rest of his life. He’s trying to get that redemption by telling her, ‘That’s why I’m fighting so hard,’ and she, of course, has no need to hear that… He wants to explain and he wants her to acknowledge what he’s been doing differently. That’s his need. It’s not her need.
E. Faye Butler, who plays Juba and with whom the Ms. Blog also spoke last September when she appeared in the Arena Stage’s Trouble in Mind, talks about playing a character who has been but is no longer a victim:
She’s always in control. She will never be out of control another day in her life. She lives in the moment. He’s still living in the past. She’s living in the present.
Though in many ways Juba’s experience of sexual violence represents that of so many women throughout history, regardless of color, Butler finds nuances that are specific to the experiences of African American women:
I think a lot of African American women are left hanging in the balance trying to figure out what happened. And we get so tired of figuring out what happened we just say, ‘Forget it,’ and we push it to the side. A lot of men leave, and they leave with their tails between their legs because they don’t think they’re good enough, they don’t have enough money, they don’t have enough education. And African American women have always had to forge ahead. We can’t wait. We have children and we have responsibilities. We have to take care of ourselves.
West hopes her intimate exploration of individual lives, family history and the history of the African American people will lead the audience to ask difficult but important questions about the effects of history on our present:
Where are we now? How empowered are we now? Where are our tools for survival? How do we express and tell the next generation our history so that they can take from that a sense of pride, a sense of purpose and even a sense of direction, as opposed to ignoring the history because we think it’s only of victimhood? …We don’t want to think about the times we had to do menial labor when we’re now lawyers and doctors and priests and everything, the whole gamut. But it is off the backs of people who didn’t have the same privileges that we became what we are today. A lot of pride, a lot of dignity, a lot of lessons can be learned from those porters, because no matter what, they consistently said, ‘I do a job and I do it well.’
If you are near D.C., get tickets now to invest in this world and listen to some fantastic blues.
Pullman Porter Blues runs from November 23- January 6. Visit Arena Stage’s website to hear the music and meet the team behind the show. Click here to read more of the interviews with Cheryl L. West, Lisa Peterson, E. Faye Butler and Christine Sumption.
For further reading, check out Melinda Chatauvert’s Marching Together: Women of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday.
Photo of E. Faye Butler as Juba from by Kevin Rosinbum.
A conversation about the new play Pullman Porter Blues with playwright Cheryl L. West, director Lisa Peterson, actor E. Faye Butler, and dramaturg Christine Sumption. Read the full article at Ms.
The Ms. Magazine Blog: What would you say Pullman Porter Blues is about?
West: The entire play really is about how do you survive: How do you survive in your family, how do you survive against economic oppression, how do you survive alone? How do you survive when there’s so little to go around? And how do you survive your own choices in life? I think that this story really resonates today because I think we are also in a time in our country when so many people are fighting to survive, and that doesn’t always bring out the pretty in us.
Peterson: I think the story is about a generation of men working on the train and how they try to pass down from one generation to the next the best part of themselves, to make the future better than the past. It’s a play about the generations joining forces to make a better future.
I understand the play was inspired somewhat by memories of West’s grandfather?
West: I don’t remember his specific stories, but I do remember how much it changed him and that when he would tell them he would so romanticize that time in his life, the ability to travel, the ability to see the country, to have a good job for a black at that time. I remember more his expression than anything else.
Most people have a train story, some nostalgia about the train, and so it just seems to resonate with all kinds of people. A lot of times trains lull you into reflection and to think deeply about things, to see the world passing you by literally out the window makes you reflect on your world.
Sumption: [Cheryl told me] she remembers taking the train down to go back and visit family in Mississippi. And she remembered that her grandmother, who was a bit of a flirt, every time a porter walked by she would just lift her skirt up just a little bit. And Cheryl was always trying to figure out what was the attraction to these men? She remembers they were so clean, they were so pressed, and she was just intrigued by what made these men smile all the time. She had no idea about the kind of professional armor they had to wear. And as we got talking we realized a lot of different people, their uncles, their grandfathers were porters.
What are the different ideas represented by these men of one family and three generations?
West: Monroe is such a character of a man who really believes in the family. He really believes in protecting them. The strain throughout his story is that he wants to protect the generations and protect their history. He wants them to know it because he believes that history is what’s going to be their veil of protection so that they can survive the next generation. Because if you don’t know where you came from it’s hard to know where you’re going and how you arrived where you are at the present.
That second generation, that Sylvester character, is always so angry. You learn as the play goes on that this is a man looking for redemption. I mean he has some things to be angry about, he has some things to feel like a failure about. And the way he’s learned to cope in his life, the way that he’s learned to survive is this sort of combustible kind of anger.
His son, Cephas, has the benefit of a few years past slavery, his son has education, some sense of his own manhood, because he has been able to go to a school, he has had privileges. And he’s been so sheltered and protected in a way that he doesn’t know that it’s a danger out there just because of the color of his skin. He has both of them there sheltering and protecting so a lot of the ugliness of the world has been kept from him. In a way the grandfather put him on this train to teach him in a way that just telling him would not.
Most people don’t know the details of the history behind the Pullman porters. Tell us more about them.
Sumption: [Cheryl] knew she was going to writing something about the porters, and did an extensive examination of the history trying to decide where we wanted to place the play historically. She chose 1937 specifically because that was the year that the Pullman company recognized the union and signed a collective bargaining agreement with them. It was also the year that Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship and so we chose to set it on that night. But the Brotherhood was first formed in about 1925 and Pullman was fiercely anti-union. Particularly they did not want African American men unionizing. They hired them specifically right out of slavery; the company was getting started and all the slaves had just been emancipated and were looking for jobs. And this was a way of not only – in the benevolent view, providing employment for this group of black workers – but also advertising to white people that they would get the service that was the equivalent to having slaves. And so they are definitely playing both sides of the coin here.
The union struggled for many years; they had to remain underground. Asa Philip Randolph was the head of the union and he fought all kinds of dirty tricks. It took them ten years to get the charter from the American Federation of Labor and up until that time, all the unions had been white. By 1928 or 29 the union had 10,000 members. I mean it was huge. Then the stock market crashed, the economy went into a tailspin, and the union also really suffered during that time. But they were fiercely determined organizers.
West: You know there were maids on this train. Then after a certain amount of years, there were no maids any more. I think in 1925 they really starting organizing the union, it took them 12 years to get the Pullman Company to sign a collective bargaining agreement. So from where this play takes place in a few months they’re gonna finally get recognized as a union. It took them twelve long years.
Christine: And although the union, which is famous for being the first African American labor union, was initially called The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids, in 1929 when they developed a new constitution they dropped the “and maids” from the title. So even in the world of their union they were excluded.
West: The maids did most of the tending to the elderly and the white women: Their hair, their nails, if they needed help with bathing, they did all that kind of work for the white women because you know the porters weren’t supposed to deal with white women. They didn’t do as well as the porters, they didn’t make as much money. And a lot of time they were on there taking care of the white women’s babies while their babies were at home. So they did have to sacrifice to be on there. But it was a job. You could earn some tip money. And you could see some of the country as well. But they worked really hard and were not treated well at all.
Christine: One of the challenging things was the maids were frequently the only women on the train. There would be a maid and there would be a lot of porters and conductors and brakemen and so on. Eventually – particularly as women’s fashions changed and women on the train no longer needed help lacing up their corsets – the maids began to become smaller and smaller in number on the trains. Then they were encouraged within the union to move from being actual union activists with membership to the women’s auxiliaries. But they were an important part of the history and have been largely relegated to the margins.
You the say the maids were often the only women on the trains. Were some of them raped, as Juba was?
Sumption: Certainly there was sexual harassment. There are some accounts of maids on the train being harassed particularly by conductors. It’s not heavily documented but we did do a certain amount of thinking about how common harassment and rape are among women in our time and how little that has been spoken of and used that as an imaginative leaping off point.
What are some of the men’s issues in the play?
West: Sylvester has a sense of feeling emasculated, and emasculation leads to a lot of problems. Not being able to provide in a certain way, not being able to protect – those are assumed roles for men. And then when that is cut off or the man is inept or the man is incapable of or prevented from providing, then what do you do with that? And you see sometimes outbursts of violence, turning it on the woman as if it’s her fault that I feel less than a man, you know, as opposed to what is the real source here. But the real source is, as Juba says, is you can’t say that to a white man.
Christine: I think there is an effort on Cheryl’s part to reclaim an image of black manhood that is so denigrated in a lot of culture, that view of black men that they’re gangsters, they don’t take care of their children, they’re criminals. So she’s really looking at, “What about the man who is responsible for his children? The one who does care about what happens to the next generation, who is really struggling to meet his responsibility?”
Peterson: As a director, I always feel like I’m going into a culture and a world I have to learn about, even if it’s ethnically similar to me it’s always about investigating myself, so it doesn’t feel that different to me. It’s an exploratory and educational process for me in some ways, but the job feels the same to me, which is to tell the story in an exciting way, looking for clarity and contrast and finding a way to fluidly give it physical life. That’s my job no matter what. … The world of the Pullman porters is a very important part of American history but not something that people know a lot about and so I think for all of us, it’s still kind of a world that we need to investigate.
Butler: There are times it’s extremely challenging. I will not lie. I know a lot of people like to say,”Oh it’s no different working with a white director.” It is different. There are times that you have to talk them off the ledge. I think Lisa understands human emotion a great deal, and I think there were times that she would say certain things to me and I would be like, “Mmm, I understand from a woman’s standpoint from you, but African American women don’t respond that way about that.” I had to show her a lot. I had to say, “I don’t think she would be as angry as you think she would be.” I said, “Juba can’t spend the rest of her life being angry with him as much as she is disappointed in him.” Because to be angry like that all the time, that means I consider myself a victim. She will play a man. African American women will play a man to the end of their lives, more than we would go, “Oh I just really miss you.” Huh-uh. I might be thinking that, but I’m not going to say it.
Lisa asked a lot of questions of Cheryl, and I think she’s very good at allowing us to come to the process and we are learning from her and her putting us in good places on stage but her also learning historically some of the things that African Americans go through that she couldn’t get to. She couldn’t get to it because it’s an experience. You can’t learn it, you live it. So there’s some things she can’t help me with. She can ask me about it and I try to talk her through it so she understands it so that when she’s directing me she keeps me on the straight and narrow of that and we don’t get off track. But it is very very different dealing with a white director on a black piece. You do have to be more sensitive to them, you do have to explain a little bit more what’s going on. I’ve worked with lots of white directors on a black piece and as long as they’re open the process is good.
Who is Juba?
Butler: Juba is a woman that lives in the moment. She’s learned to live in the moment because of things that have happened to her in her life. The few women who were extremely prominent during that period had a lot of power and men worked for them. So she’s strong, she’s ballsy, she’s glamorous, and she’s got a lot of tenderness in her but she’s got to cover it up because if not she’ll continue to get stepped on. She has to cover it up because if not she’ll get hurt again and again and again. But she’s really full of life. She’s totally in the moment. She has to live in the moment.
Her past made her who she is, though. Juba is not really her name. She used to work as a maid on the train, and this is the first time she’s been back on that train and she’s coming back as a big star. It’s not a ride she wants to take, it’s a ride she has to take. And so she protects herself on this ride. And it’s quite a ride for her.
Sumption: She was one of the first characters that Cheryl envisioned. She knew she wanted to write about the porters, she knew it would be a generational play because she wanted to depict how different men in different points in time look at race relations and family and responsibility and so on. And she always knew she wanted to have a blues singer on that train, partly influenced of course by the fact that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were these towering figures of the blues. Bessie Smith famously had her own railroad car so that she was really traveling in style. So Cheryl wanted to give some sense of what that was like.
Butler: She gets on the train only focused on the fact that I’ve got to get to New Orleans on this particular train and that I do not want to be on. She’s got her band with her, she’s a major star, it’s the same night as the heavyweight fight with Joe Louis. She thinking maybe I’ll just get on this train, stay a little under the radar and people will leave me alone. It just so happens that her porter happens to be the man that helped save her life, which takes her back to a place that she never expected to go.
Sumption: Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies was one of the things that really influenced my thinking about Juba as a figure. She talks about how there’s this prevailing image of the black woman of the period being this tragic figure and she does this breakdown of the lyrics and talks about how they are defiant bordering on violent and just claiming their independence and strength in the world.
Butler: Juba is going for it. She’s going to rise above it no matter what. She’d love to take you along for the ride and she’s ready to go. But if not, that’s okay.
Talk about her relationship with Sylvester.
Sumption: One of the great conflicts of the play is 26-years later he is still absolutely wrapped up in what he didn’t do and how he didn’t help her and she’s long since gone. She hasn’t forgotten it, but his inability to move on from that is kind of why she rejects him. She needs to be seen as her own human being who found ways to survive and thrive despite what men did. And in a way to her at this point the men are irrelevant. They’re there, but she knows that’s it’s on her to live.
Butler: He always talks about everything but what he should be talking to her about. He’s trying to talk about the union, and she’s like excuse me? You want to talk about the Pullman Porter union? Get out of my face. Why do you keep talking to me about something I don’t care about? If you want to talk to me and you want me to respond to you in a positive way, you got to start out better. She doesn’t care about that. So he kind of shoots himself in the foot because he never just says “I’m sorry.” He never talks about the elephant in the middle of the room.
African American women don’t have time to sit around and wait on men to call us crying in your spoiled milk about what you woulda coulda shoulda done. I was the one that suffered and now you want me to feel sorry for you? Get away from me. You really want me to feel sorry for you when it happened to me? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to work. So that’s why every time they meet she just kind of stomps off or she gets angry, and it’s that thing that a lot of black men will say to us: “Why are you angry all the time?” Really? Why am I angry all the time? Really? If I have to tell you, it isn’t worth talking about.
What’s the relationship between trains and the blues?
Sumption: I think the primary thing that we were looking at was the notion that when the Emancipation Proclamation happened was also the time when the railroads were booming. You’ve got people traveling north as part of the Great Migration, and people who were moving to Chicago were bringing the blues with them and finding ways to transform the art form. So it was a boom time that the music was carried by the trains. And it spread African American culture in this really profound way. And so many of the songs of the period are about trains. Frequently the blues is not so much about what is said but how it’s said: You’ve got singers’ voices and instruments that replicate either the moan of the train whistle or the sound of the train running down the tracks and that sense of restlessness and seeking home.
And really people reinventing their lives. Juba does it literally in the sense of making a new human being. That maid is dead and gone. She’s remade herself as this fabulous singer. People moving north as part of the Great Migration were transforming their lives and really figuring out anew what they could do.
Is it just me, or is there some significance to the fact that the trip in the play is the reverse of the Great Migration?
Sumption: One of the things that the Porters are famous for is distributing the African American newspapers, particularly the Chicago Defender, moving those newspapers south and really carrying word of the opportunities that were available up North to people in the South. But also Cheryl really wanted to dig into that notion of what happens when you go back, either literally going back to where you come from or those of us now going back in history and recognizing the contributions of those who came before us, the people who made it possible for us to do what we are able to do now and recognizing that sacrifice, facing up to the pain that our ancestors experienced and celebrating what they accomplished.
Photos (from top) of Cheryl West by Nate Watters, and Lisa Peterson courtesy Arena Stage.