Seattle is lucky to have two quality productions running right now—one good, one great—that are set 70 years apart but contain excellent performances and uncanny sympathetic resonances about race, family (blood and chosen), and the fights and evasions among people who love each other, however begrudgingly.
Pullman Porter Blues, a world premiere by playwright Cheryl L. West (Before It Hits Home), follows three generations of African American porters working a Pullman train full of white assholes between Chicago and New Orleans on the night of the legendary boxing match between Joe Louis and James Braddock. Superior Donuts, by Tracy Letts, concerns a hangdog white pot-smoker who owns a rundown doughnut shop in Chicago, his exuberant new African American assistant, and their cops-and-robbers neighbors. Both plays happen to have a fistfight as their secret fulcrum—moments of violence that are freighted with fierce love. The Pullman fight is obvious: Louis vs. Braddock, which Langston Hughes and others have written about as an enormous moment for black hope in the United States. The Donuts fight is more surprising, but even more pivotal to the play. (I won't spoil it for you here.)
To see the plays individually is rewarding. To see them together in a weekend double-header is sublime.
First, the great: Superior Donuts is a small but kick-ass play full of kick-ass actors. Letts wrote it after his hugely ambitious, award-winning August: Osage County, which required 13 actors and a three-story house as its set. While critics swooned over August, its grand architecture—both the set and the story's mechanics—tended to upstage the heart of the play itself. The storefront-sized confines of Donuts give its characters greater fluidity and freedom, and their little tics speak volumes more than any sweeping gestures. August was a pretty good epic; Donuts is an exquisite sonnet.
Arthur (Kevin McKeon) is the aging Polish American owner whose most courageous act in life was fleeing to Toronto to dodge the draft. He's a humane but distant sort of guy and has warmly terse relationships with his regulars: the local cops, a Russian entrepreneur, an alcoholic old lady named Lady. Enter a boisterous young African American novelist named Franco (Charles Norris) who proceeds to drag Arthur off his remote island from the moment they start their job interview. Franco wants to please but can't hide his opinions, and he begins telling Arthur how he should do things differently. Norris's effervescence matched with McKeon's deadpan makes the whole play glow.
Franco: What kind of oil you use?
Arthur: Peanut oil.
Franco: Not exactly a healthy choice, is it?
Arthur: Could be worse.
Franco: Yeah, could be. Could be horse fat, but that's not much of an endorsement, is it? You ain't gonna put that on the sign.
Franco: "Superior Donuts! It Ain't Horse Fat!"
The exchange continues with Franco hectoring Arthur about selling doughnuts to the local African American community as a "meal substitute," how that contributes to community obesity, and why nobody ever sees a "big angry black man" shopping at Whole Foods for "soy cheese and echinacea and star fruit." ("Shit," Franco reflects for a moment, "I'm just about hooked on that soy cheese.")
Arthur: Are you encouraging me to close my business, Franco Wicks?
Franco: I'm encouraging you to provide some heart-healthy alternatives... [contemptuously] If you want to stay in the world of the doughnut...
Arthur: [mildly exasperated] Hold on, this is your job interview.
Franco: [earnestly] How'm I doing?
Though Donuts is full of sweet wit—their evolving banter is sometimes reminiscent of the gibes between Falstaff and Prince Hal—it is soaked in bitterness. The characters reach toward each other, but they often fail to make contact because of racial tensions, miscommunications, and Chicago's literal and metaphorical cold. The whole cast, directed by Russ Banham, thrives together: Jená Cane as a cop with a crush on Arthur, Gordon Carpenter as a thuggish bookie, Alexander Samuels as the thorny Russian entrepreneur. And actor Charles Norris as Franco is on an actor's ascent after his rich, rounded performances as a gay ornithologist in Babs the Dodo at Washington Ensemble Theater and a wisecracking broom-pusher in A Confederacy of Dunces for Book-It. This may be his best performance yet.
By contrast, the 1937 archetypes of Pullman Porter Blues are much broader. The three porters are more modes than people: The granddad (Larry Marshall) keeps his head down, always deferring to whites, while secretly smuggling copies of the Chicago Defender, the great early civil rights newspaper, on the train down south. The son (Cleavant Derricks) is a union organizer, more obstreperous and openly challenging. And the grandson (Warner Miller) is a dreamy stargazer, searching more for himself than any greater good. The supporting characters are also modes: Richard Ziman as a cackling, wickedly racist train conductor; Emily Chisholm as a Depression-era hobo (who plays a hell of a good harmonica); and E. Faye Butler as a regal, take-no-shit blues singer who's got everybody's number.
Pullman has an onstage band, but it isn't a "musical" per se. It's more a play with songs, since the blues numbers serve as interludes rather than opportunities to push the action along. The production has the rattling, driving momentum of the train it's set on, but Butler as the singer Sister Juba steals the show. She has an extraordinarily bluesy voice, with the ability to dig down into a Bessie Smith growl or sustain a long-winded Etta James howl. She brings this quality to her singing and her spoken lines, which she often ends with "sheeeit." (She explains that's just her way of punctuating a sentence.)
This world premiere, commissioned by the Rep four years ago, could have national legs. Pullman is broad, but it hits all the audience feel-good buttons: comedy, pathos, razzle-dazzle, a little history lesson, a little shame, a little hope. Though it hangs its story on historical injustices, it offers relatively palatable politics to white audiences (and let's not kid ourselves—white people are still largely in charge of picking plays at bigger theaters) who can look at the evil conductor and think: "Well, at least I'm not that guy. Look how far we've come!"
The endnote of Superior Donuts is also hopeful, but a little less black and white (so to speak). Its characters sometimes fail each other, but they keep the fatalistic hope of the old Samuel Beckett line: "All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."