Cheryl L . West practices the theatrical art of tough love. In her hit play (and subsequent Showtime TV film) Holiday Heart, a gay African-American transvestite with AIDS shelters a drug-addicted neighbor’s little girl. In West’s impressionistic Birdie Blue, a chatty, bewildered African-American Everywoman cares for a husband stricken with Alzheimer’s, and recalls a life of fleeting joys and agonizing losses. In Addy: An American Girl Story, a Southern child flees slavery with her mother, and defiantly endures blatant racism in the North.
West doesn’t shy away from rough-edged characters. In fact, she embraces them heartily. In seriocomic dramas that reach diverse American audiences, West’s characters regularly rise to the occasion when hard-pressed by personal or historical circumstance.
“What continually surprises you about Cheryl is how she trusts her characters, and trusts their experience, and allows them to lead us into worlds that are painful and difficult, and yet can also be unspeakably funny,” says Peter Brosius, artistic director of Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company, who staged the premiere of West’s Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy last spring.
Seattle Repertory Theatre artistic chief Jerry Manning, who commissioned and is co-producing West’s long-simmering new play Pullman Porter Blues for his company, puts it this way: “Cheryl is very alive and aware of the world around her, and she has a response to it. The injustice of the world is tough, and requires a tough response. And she’s a tough woman, yet extraordinarily sensitive and witty, too.”
With a firm grip on the essentials of two-fisted melodrama, an uncanny ear for pungent dialogue and a vigorous boldness of spirit, West’s writing—for adults and youths, for stage and screen, in musicals and dramas—is steeped in the particulars of the African-American experience.
From her raucously frank take on four generations of black women in a matriarchal Illinois clan, in the early 1990s Off-Broadway hit Jar the Floor, to her study of a youthful interracial friendship crushed by a historical act of discrimination in Lizzie Bright, her plays fuse righteous indignation with unvarnished candor and concern.
A different set of strong individuals, with plenty to say and sing, take center stage in Pullman Porter Blues, a play with music about black train porters in the 1930s. Set on the eve of a historic boxing match, the show debuts this month at Seattle Rep, in a co-production with Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage (where it opens a second run in late November).
West is also represented on screen this year: She scripted the new Robert Townsend film In the Hive, based on the true story of an irrepressible North Carolina cook’s mission to save at-risk youths.
Meeting West at a Seattle café, where she often curls into a corner to write on her laptop, one is struck first by her warmth, graciousness and soft, girlish voice. But as this single mother of two speaks candidly of her life and career, there’s no doubt that West, now in her mid-forties, is also a woman of spine and substance. And as a writer, she stubbornly follows her populist instincts, regardless of theatrical fashion—and despite some critical complaints that her work can be overly broad and blunt. In a New York Times review of Holiday Heart, for example, critic Ben Brantley wrote that West knows how to tug “both laughter and tears from her audiences” but “at the expense of multi-layered characterizations and the very complex issues that she raises.”
For her part, “A writer’s job is to tell the truth, no matter how much that costs you,” West believes. “I think life is about big emotions, about people trying to understand each other. And reaching that point of understanding is not easy.”
Given the sense of raw authenticity her plays convey, it figures that the Chicagobred University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana grad started out as a social worker and a teacher. But from childhood, she declares, “I was always the kid who couldn’t wait for story time. And I was always interested in where we as black Americans came from as a people, and where we were going. Later, when I became a writer, I wanted to show our history and find the beauty in the pain, and the glory.”
In her drive to, in her words, “legitimize black language and life,” West emerged as part of a 1990s wave of black female playwrights—Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Kia Corthron and others—with distinctive
voices. In typical fashion, West didn’t wait for encouragement or opportunities to find her own niche. She formed a theatre company in Champaign, Ill., and directed her own script, giving herself five years to reach a point where she earned her living from writing—a goal she attained.
Before It Hits Home, an early effort that won the 1991 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, established West’s humanistic approach to provocative subject matter. The first high-profile drama to confront the epidemic of AIDS among African Americans, it followed an ailing, bisexual gay man, who encounters both rejection and compassion when he returns to his parents’ home to die.
“I wrote it in 1987, feeling we had to be ready for what was coming,” says West, who had worked at the Champaign-Urbana Health Department doing HIV counseling and observed the encroaching AIDS epidemic up close. “And I took a lot of heat for it. When Arena Stage produced it in 1991, it generated a lot of discussion in the black community. I remember somebody from the Urban League saying, ‘How dare Cheryl West use the term AIDS and black people in the same sentence!’ There were audience members who yelled at the main character, whenever he went back to his male lover.”
Manning, an Arena staffer at the time, considered the script to be daring and prescient. “I don’t know what possessed us to do it, frankly. In certain sectors of the black community the attitude was, homosexuals don’t exist. Cheryl was saying, ‘Be aware—these people are among us and we should embrace them. If we don’t deal with AIDS, it will decimate our community.’ And she was right.”
That same gutsy directness and verbal grit informed the stage and film versions of Holiday Heart (a play she says posed the question, “What if the best person to care for a kid in foster care turns out to be a gay, black drag queen?”), as well as her unsentimental yet compassionate view of female family dysfunction in Jar the Floor and her unflinching adaptation of Gary D. Schmidt’s Newbery Award-winning novel for youth, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.
A fictional work inspired by historical events, Lizzie Bright is set in Phippsburg, Maine, circa 1912. It traces the friendship of two adolescents from very different backgrounds—a white minister’s son, town newcomer Turner Buckminster; and Lizzie, a product of a tight-knit African-American community. It is a tale fraught with prejudice, dislocation and death, as young Lizzie and her people, descendants of slaves, are wrenched from their homes on Malaga Island, off the Maine coast, so white town leaders can establish a tourist economy there.
“On the one hand, it’s a terribly tragic story of people who lose everything in the face of government and official pressure,” explains director Brosius. “But Cheryl had the courage to tell it in a way that makes you see all points of view, and realize that people act in their own self-interest as well as out of what they think is the right choice. She doesn’t create easy villains. She doesn’t create easy heroines.”
In a review for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Renee Valois called the play intense and disturbing, but not “morbid. Sometimes actors’ lines are lost in the loud laughter of the audience during moments of unexpected mirth. There also is beauty in the unfolding of love and courage.”
Pullman Porter Blues also utilizes comedy to examine an iconic African-American profession. In tandem with director Lisa Peterson and the show’s musical director, J. Michael, West has threaded in popular blues music of the 1930s (played by an onstage combo) to illustrate an era, just as Duke Ellington’s jazz standards suffused the 1997 Broadway musical Play On!, West’s resetting of Twelfth Night to 1940s Harlem (as conceived by its director, Sheldon Epps). Developed with the close participation of Seattle dramaturg (and frequent West collaborator) Christine Sumption, Pullman Porter Blues was partially inspired by an incident in the playwright’s childhood.
“My first train ride was from Chicago to Mississippi,” West reflects. “There were these pretty men in uniforms, and my grandma was flirting with them. They seemed so happy and proud. But later I realized there was a lot of pain behind those smiles.”
She eventually learned that black porters had been fixtures on American passenger trains for more than a century, starting in 1868, when George Pullman hired them exclusively to attend to white rail travelers on his classy new Pullman sleeping cars. They were admired by travelers for their meticulous, friendly service and the great pride they took in their work. And they were accorded special respect in the black community. The porters also earned more than most black laborers (they battled to establish a national union, in 1925), and were early members of a post-Reconstruction, African-American middle class.
“This was the first job black men could do after slavery and wear a tie,” contends West. “They were revered in the black community. But they were also beat up when they tried to unionize, and there are stories of porters being lynched in the South. White women would come on to them, then accuse them of rape. They could never be promoted to conductor, and for a long time they weren’t paid for the hours of work they did getting the trains ready for passengers.”
Says Peterson, director of several workshops of the piece, as well as its Seattle and Arena premieres, “One reason Cheryl’s plays get done in regional theatres is she knows a powerful story when she sees it. It’s amazing to me there’s never been a major play about the Pullman Porters. It’s such a major part of American history, and such a great landscape for the story.”
Emphasizes West, “I’m committed to telling their story with the dignity these men deserve.” In that vein, she chose a “defining event” for the play’s backdrop: the 1937 world championship boxing bout in Chicago pitting black fighter Joe Louis (“The Brown Bomber”) against a white opponent, James Braddock.
As in Jar the Floor, the central dynamics of Pullman Porter Blues concern several contentious generations in a black family—here a Pullman Porter veteran, his porter son, and the latter’s son, a new college grad helping out on a train bound for New Orleans on the night of the big fight. Also on board: a famous blues singer and her band, a bigoted conductor, and a young female stowaway—“people of different races and classes,” points out West, all of them at pivotal moments in their lives.
“I really wanted to set this on a train,” West adds. “The Pullman cars were so elegant, like hotels on wheels. It’s posed a big challenge for our designer, Riccardo Hernandez, but I wanted simultaneous action in different cars—the band members playing cards, people dressing, the porters working. A train never sleeps.”
Adds Peterson, “It’s written like a film. You really want to have the camera on the train moving down the track. We’re approaching it as a kind of dance.”
While West has invested a lot of herself in Pullman Porter Blues, she’s a writer who always keeps several future projects bubbling. She’d like to further develop her musical Rejoice!, about a family of contemporary gospel singers, an early draft of which debuted in 2006 at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta. “An African-American take on Pygmalion” is on her to-do list. And she’s planning a comedy about competitive sports in a high school for girls (her adolescent daughters attend one). In addition, West is a go-to writer for film and TV producer Townsend, for whom she’s penned three seasons of the webseries “Diary of a Single Mom.”
“Ten years ago, I didn’t know what I’d be doing now,” West admits. “And all I really know is that I want to always tell a good story with compelling characters—and I have no idea where that will take me. But I’ll always write what I’m passionate about.”
Seattle Times theatre critic Misha Berson is a frequent contributor to American Theatre. Her latest book, Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination, came out in 2011.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!