The Purists

by James Wilkinson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Sep 16, 2019
The cast of "The Purists" at the Calderwood Pavilion through October 6.
The cast of "The Purists" at the Calderwood Pavilion through October 6.  

The Huntington Theatre Company's new production, "The Purists," wants you to feel the beat - to not only be aware of its rhythms, but to receive it deep in your gut and let it spreads to your limbs. As you're taking your seat in the audience you might, as I did, begin to bob your head in sync with the hip-hop music playing over the theater loudspeakers.

That's a start, but it's not enough. Before we settle into the story proper, one of our actors, (J. Bernard Calloway) will come out to deliver the curtain speech, treating the moment not as a formality, but as a warm-up act for the evening. Microphone in hand, (unneeded, as Calloway's booming voice seems to effortlessly fill the theater), Calloway gets the audience onto their feet, swaying to the music and clapping their hands to the beat. For a moment, a theater full of patrons is turned into a club, with Callaway commanding us all.

It's a glimmer of magnetism that we'll see repeated during the night. In its best moments, you lose yourself in "The Purists" as you click in to its characters. The production has the kind of swaggering confidence that makes it easy to give yourself over to it. The play, by Dan McCabe, is receiving its world premiere at the Huntington and it ends up being a lot of fun, due in no small part to the tremendous verve that director Billy Porter brings to the project. The advertising that I've seen for the show highlights the people-from-different-walks-of-life-come-together aspect of the plot, and I'd argue that puts the focus in the wrong place. For me, the play connects back to The Huntington's production of "Indecent" from earlier in the year. That Paula Vogel play was, in part, a chance for her to gush about the magic of theater, and "The Purists" has a similar angle. Really, it shines brightest when it functions as a love letter to an art form.

There's a moment of whiplash in the show's opening moments as it goes from the high energy of the curtain speech to something much quieter. Gerry Brinsler (John Scurti) begins his day in his cramped Queens apartment. In the background, the original cast album of "The King and I" plays and Gerry hums along to "Getting to Know You." Outside the apartment, Lamont Cipher, (Morocco Omari) walks up to the building, carrying a boom box that's blasting Public Enemy's "Shut Em Down." He's there to visit Mr. Bugz (J. Bernard Calloway), who lives in Gerry's building. The collision of musical genres seems to establish these people as antagonists, but these characters have already come together (partly, at least).

We can see it in the friendly sparring patter that develops between the three on the front stoop of the apartment building. The characters might not quite be ready to call themselves friends, but a kind of camaraderie has been formed between Gerry (an older gay, white man with a deep love of musical theater), Bugz (a black hip-hop deejay currently on leave while he takes care of his ailing mother), and Cipher (a black rap artist who was part of a Public Enemy-like rap group in the early '90s). Eventually, the main trio will be joined by Val (Analisa Velez) and Nancy (Issie Steele), two young emcees, each using hip-hop to very different ends.

From this beginning, McCabe lets his characters loose on each other. At the intermission for the show, I happened to hear two patrons on either side of me exclaim that they didn't know where the plot was going. Neither did I, and I think it's because McCabe has put focus more on character than on plot (it also makes it difficult to describe what happens without going beat by beat and spoiling several revelations, but that's my problem more so than McCabe's). His script has that kind of gentle touch where character is revealed bit by bit through action rather than by an exposition dump at the top.

Designer Clint Ramos creates a dollhouse-like set of the apartment building. It's gorgeous to look at (it comes to life when lighting designer Driscoll Otto floods it with vibrant color). It doesn't give the actors much room on stage to move around, but I suspect that this is by design. Director Billy Porter uses the lack of space to his advantage. His staging keeps his actors in each other's faces. They can't avoid each dealing with each other. That directness helps give a climactic fight in Act Two much of its power.

You can also feel (and I appreciate) that Porter has put in the work helping to get his cast to that place of confidence in what they're doing. J. Bernard Calloway gives a wonderful performance as Bugz, playing (in my own personal opinion) the most interesting character in the show. Calloway digs into the character, revealing new layers and complications in each scene. He has a great scene partner in Morocco Omari. There's a joy in watching the two spar over the merits of Eminem and Biggie. When they're on stage together they seem to be overbrimming with charisma.

Kano and Steele turn in fantastic comic performances and the highlight of the play for me are then moments when these two are let loose. In an early scene, Bugz prompts Val to provide a sample of the music she's been working on (he even provides the beats). She hesitates, but then a smile passes over Kano's lips and she dives in with a rap. The two lock eyes and a kind of alright-motherfucker-let-me-show-you-what-I-got look comes over her face. For a moment the audience seems to have melted away, the two are totally in sync and lost in the words and the rhythm. You feel just how deep the characters' love of the music is in this moment. They're practically getting off on it, and you share in the joy. We'll get another shot of this energy in act two with a freestyle battle between Val and Nancy. The two women take the stage and for a moment, own it completely, holding us with the force of their words. It's an electric moment to watch, a credit not just to the performers, but to how Porter's handling of the actors gets them to that place of assurance.

There's a lot in "The Purists" to like (in case you can't tell already). The wrench in the works comes in the ending, which I wish had a bit more bite. McCabe's play wants to end on a positive note, on the idea that growth is possible and people can come together. I can understand that (who doesn't like feeling upbeat?). But the play doesn't earn fully earn it. The final image we get as the lights go down is one of unity, signaling that Gerry and Cipher have bridged some sort of divide. But have they? Have they actually changed in any sort of significant way? At best it seems that they've reached a point where they've agreed to not be so vocal with their prejudices. Could change for these characters be possible down the line? Sure. But this kind of ending that cuts out all of the work and sends the audience out all smiles lets us all off the hook. There are some thorny issues raised in the second half of the play. Issues of race, appropriation, culture, change, homophobia, and the evolution of art. I wish we left the play wanting to talk about those issues rather than smiling at the fact that everything was all right in the end. It's a strange wrong note for this song to end on.

"The Purists" continues through October 6, 2019 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. For more information, visit the Huntington Theatre website.

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