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Start unpacking the congruities between the 31-year-old musical Dreamgirls, running now in an impressively glamorous staging at Signature Theatre, and the brand-new drama-with-songs Pullman Porter Blues at Arena Stage, and you’ll discover more than just the actor Cleavant Derricks. He was Broadway’s original James Thunder Early—the James Brownish R&B star whose decline and marginalization is one of Dreamgirls’ sad story arcs—and he’s playing a stiff-backed railway porter and union organizer in Cheryl L. West’s stirring and resonant play.
But that’s just happenstance. What’s more interesting is the extent to which these two stories, written two decades apart, one set in the realm of ’60s and ’70s entertainment and one on the iron roads of the 1930s, have similar things to say about the compromises and sacrifices required of African Americans working across the color line. Whether it’s a Pullman Porter putting in a round-the-clock shift but still beaming deferentially for the benefit of his all-white passengers or a singer smoothing out his raw, soulful sound for the sake of reaching a wider (read: whiter) audience, the characters in both shows are pressed by institutions, expectations, and aspirations to contort themselves painfully into something they’re naturally not.
Complicated concepts of family suffuse both stories too. In Dreamgirls, it’s a brother-and-sister team, C.C. and Effie White, who with two friends set out from Chicago to Harlem to make it at the Apollo. C.C. writes the songs, while vocal powerhouse Effie, backed by Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson—together they bill themselves as The Dreamettes—sings the close, cooing harmonies of the Motown style. As their little clan grows more popular, a slick manager begins to remake them into a more mainstream-friendly package, and when Effie resists, the others close ranks and plead with her to put aside her own ambitions aside for the sake of their musical family. It works—but only for a while.