An original play, "Compared to What," written and directed by Oakland playwright Judith Offer about the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, begins a three-weekend run May 10 at the First Christian Church Fellowship Hall, 111 Fairmont Ave.
Set in a West Oakland boardinghouse, the story in "Compared to What" centers around two veteran Pullman porters and the difficult working conditions their jobs entail. Other characters include an Irish immigrant woman, who is the owner of the boardinghouse, and a wealthy African-American club woman/community organizer. A young male character, recently migrated from the rural South seeking work as a porter, and a rigid superintendent of the Pullman Company complete the cast.
The characters are based on real people. "These porters stayed the course for more than 11 years to achieve respectable working conditions," Offer said. "They are high on my list of heroes. This play will reaffirm your belief in the rights of all working Americans. This is a labor story, an Oakland story, and a love story."
To mount her latest production, Offer, who has previous plays to her credit, turned to social media and the Internet to publicize everything from her cast tryout calls to announcements about the performances. She has also launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise crowd-source capital to finance expenses such as program printing, costume and lighting costs.
Her Facebook page -- www.facebook.com/ComparedToWhatThePlay -- contains historical images of Pullman porters and of Oakland, accompanied by selections of music from the era.
Chicago-based industrialist George Pullman (1831-1897), who was head of the Pullman Company, leased luxuriously fitted rail cars with sleeping accommodations and dining facilities -- together with hand-picked trained staff -- to various railroad companies throughout the United States.
In its heyday, the Pullman Company operated the largest "rolling" hotel in the country, accommodating up to 100,000 sleeping travelers each night.
In the late 19th century, Oakland was a transportation hub as the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad. Porters, most of whom had been recruited from plantations in the South at the end of the Civil War, found Oakland's climate and its social and economic opportunities attractive to raising families.
C.L. Dellums (1900-1989) was among the multitude of migrating blacks seeking a better life who came to West Oakland. He found work as a porter and went on to become a leader in the labor union struggles for decent working conditions and wage benefits.
The longtime union headquarters for the Sleeping Car Porters still stands at 1716 7th St. The modest Victorian-style building is part of a proposed historic district stretching along 7th Street, once a vibrant commercial district in the era when Offer's play is set.
In 1925, seeking to address long hours and paltry wages -- porters basically worked for tips from their wealthy passengers) -- Chicago labor leader A. Philip Randolph, and others like Dellums on the West Coast formed the first ever African-American union called The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. In 1937 they succeeded in winning a contract with the Pullman Company, the first such agreement ever signed.
Find out more about "Compared to What," at wwww.judithoffer.com.
Learn more about C.L. Dellums and other African -merican Oakland leaders on a free downtown walking tour, www.oaklandnet.com/walkingtours.