Cultural presentations can really teach us about the past as well as entertain. This phenomenon was driven home as I witnessed two fine performances this past month that captured past events about American racial history and made me realize how important historical fiction is to today's world.
First, I had the pleasure of seeing the Arena Stage presentation of Cheryl West's new play, "Pullman Porter Blues," in Washington, D.C. The play captures poignantly three generations of hard-working African American porters that were prominent on the plush Pullman car trains. For many of them it was the best avenue to earn a steady salary in spite of the many indignities they had to endure. Weaving music, dance and drama the play captures the highs and lows of being a Pullman porter serving the whims of mostly wealthy passengers in 1937.
The scene that really impressed me was when it's announced that Joe Louis had just beaten Jim "Cinderella Man" Braddock for the heavyweight title. The porters in the play secretly celebrate his victory, identifying with Louis' accomplishments and viewing the knockout as emblematic of their own struggle to make a living and to unionize. The play also presents a deeper understanding of how African-American men who were faced with compromising jobs during Jim Crow years while still able to visualize something better for themselves.
The play also includes a standout performance by E. Faye Butler as blues singer Sister Juba. As soon as she appears on stage, her presence is larger than life. Although Juba's storyline carries a deep dark secret from her past when she was "not protected," her character demonstrates a sense of humor.
Maybe she drinks too much as a way to forget the negative experience on another train years before. In one funny scene Juba takes off her girdle on stage. Butler claimed in an interview that people laugh during the scene "because they recognize themselves." She says she was told by an audience member that, "when I take my clothes off as a larger woman, you liberate me."
The other vehicle for both a rich history lesson as well as great entertainment was the release of Stephen Spielberg's riveting "Lincoln."
Before the movie started my friends and I were discussing exactly how the 13th Amendment passed and why was it needed after the Emancipation Proclamation. All our questions were answered in rich detail after seeing
Living and following the legislative news in D.C. since 1973, I have never seen a film lay out the lobbying scene in the nation's capital as powerfully as "Lincoln" did. The film is a must-see for those who admire President Lincoln for abolishing slavery. The film demonstrates that it was not only a speech that established emancipation, but a delicate and skillfully implemented master plan to win the freedom of slaves before the end of the Civil War.
Not only was Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln a tour de force performance but the machinations that went back and forth to end the insidious practice of slavery makes for great drama and a lesson in politicking. The film should be a required screening in American history classes from now on.
Hopefully "Pullman Porter Blues" will reach Broadway and other cities and "Lincoln" will continue to perform well at the box office so that we as American citizens can appreciate the obstacles confronting the freedom and economical advancement of African-Americans.