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ACROSS THE RIVER, ARENA STAGE also offers a show with singing actors who have understandably made many critics swoon over the years – namely, E. Faye Butler (Arena's Oklahoma! and Trouble In Mind) and Cleavant Derricks. In fact, Derricks was the original Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls, starring on Broadway alongside Holliday.
Derricks is now playing a similarly strong, aggrieved man, Sylvester Sykes, in Pullman Porter Blues, Cheryl L. West's transporting new play with music – lots and lots of music, more than enough to satisfy any musical fiend, and everyone else besides. The show, ably directed by Lisa Peterson and her sharp, stylized creative team, offers a rare, entertaining look into a slab of history little known: The African-Americans who did grueling work, only a step or two removed from slavery, on the all-luxury Pullman trains in the post-Civil War generations. The Pullman porters, those traveling from Chicago to New Orleans in particular, helped spread the blues as a musical genre just as they also helped pave the way for later generations of African-Americans to succeed in other pursuits – including playwright West, whose own grandfather worked the rails.
A few of the play's subplots – and particularly those involving the white stowaway Lutie (Emily Chisholm) – aren't quite as effectively realized as the central story of the Sykes family of porters, whom we meet over the course of one night's journey circa 1937. The highlight of the play, however, has to be the character of wild woman blues singer Sister Juba, as portrayed by Faye Butler. Butler, as is her wont, puts her all into the role and steals attention with her every move. And talk about making an entrance: Grandfather Sykes (a genial Larry Marshall) wheels her onstage while she sits drunk, piled atop suitcases on a luggage wagon. ''Where d'hell y'all takin me? Shit!'' Sister Juba bellows from her de facto chariot.
''Shit,'' she later explains to the youngest Skyes (Warner Miller), by way of apologizing for her language, ''just be my way of putting a period on a sentence.''
Butler's got this critic swooning again.