By David Greenham
Note on Commercial Theatre
— Langston Hughes
You’ve taken my blues and gone —
You sing ’em on Broadway
And you sing ’em in Hollywood Bowl,
And you mixed ’em up with symphonies
And you fixed ’em
So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.
You also took my spirituals and gone.
You put me in Macbeth and Carmen Jones
And all kinds of Swing Mikados
And in everything but what’s about me —
But someday somebody’ll
Stand up and talk about me,
And write about me —
Black and beautiful —
And sing about me,
And put on plays about me!
I reckon it’ll be
Yes, it’ll be me.
The Purists by Dan McCabe. Directed by Billy Porter. Scenic design by Clint Ramos. Costume design by Kara Harmon. Lighting design by Driscoll Otto. Sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Original music by Michael Sandlofer. Produced by The Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston, MA, through October 6.
It is an exhilarating way to start a show. At the urging of the beats produced by DJ Mr. Bugz (J. Bernard Calloway), audience members are invited to jump to their feet and dance during the opening moments of The Purists, Dan McCabe’s funny and thought-provoking drama, a world premiere that is kicking off the Huntington Theatre Company’s season.
The Purists is not just about hoofing; it turns a stoop and sidewalk in Sunnyside, Queens into a three-legged stool for a relevant and lively debate among a trio of middle-aged men. Former DJ Mr. Bugz lives in an apartment on the second floor of the building, while Broadway ticket telesales director Gerry Brinsler (John Scurti) lives on the first floor. The third point of view is provided by the once famous rapper Lamont Born Cipher (Morocco Omari), who plants himself in front of the building and pontificates while quietly trying to find a rhyme that will move him back into the spotlight.
In this script, playwright Dan McCabe has created a new kind of “kitchen sink” comedy. Each male character grapples in his own way with entering into the twilight of his life, and their banter takes on the quicksilver rhythms of rap as it flips and hops over an expansive range of America’s cultural landscape. The dramatist’s revved-up dialogue pulls off a sublime balancing act: allusions to rap and hip hop crash up against references to Broadway show tunes, Amelia Earhart, and, somehow, even PBS’s cult painting teacher Bob Ross. The play jumps from topic to topic, with all the brows covered — high, middle, and low. At one point, early in the show, Mr. Bugz points out that even Queen Elizabeth goes to work every day. Lamont quips, “The Queen is gangster, we get that.” Even the royals get some play in McCabe’s delightfully unpredictable mix.
There is an undercurrent of sadness to all the verbal energy. Mr. Bugz hides the pain generated by the pending death of his mother, while Gary intimates that he’s never recovered from the loss of so many friends from the AIDS epidemic. It is Lamont’s search for the purest rhymes required by his “new rap” that supplies the play’s quietest moments: Our pure ideas are challenged from without and from within. He’s struggling to find the right words while at the same time he is fighting against the forces that pollute creativity, the profit-savvy opportunists who chew up and spit out the purity of the art form. Lamont relates the threat to Langston Hughes’s lament, “You’ve taken my blues and gone.”
For these older men, glimpses of the future take the form of two other characters. Self-confident and street-smart Val Kano (Analisa Valez) has transformed the neighborhood into her workplace. She moves so fast she needs a Segway to get around. She’s an aspiring rapper impatient for fame and ready to combat the misogynistic games that women are not supposed to acknowledge. She’s ready for a fight.
In the second act we meet another version of what’s to come with Nancy Reinstein (Izzie Steele), an aspiring actress from a privileged Westchester County background. Nancy works for Gary and is a fan of Mr. Bugz. She’s an even bigger fan of Lamont Born Cipher. She’s created a one-woman hip hop show about the life of Amelia Earhart, a project that would have sounded somewhat absurd — before the triumph of Hamilton.
Tony award–winning director Billy Porter skillfully crams these five disparate characters into a wildly entertaining evening. As in the rough-hewn tradition of the rap competition, the range of emotions matches the range of topics. McCabe makes sure the play’s characterizations are weighty enough to articulate a number of ideas, while Porter ensures that the actors are far more than just the concepts they spout.
It helps, of course, to have a stellar cast. Calloway displays a considerable complexity beneath his charming demeanor. Scurti marries humor and cynicism with ease. Omari’s strong physical presence allows glimpses of a deep sensitivity. The women, Val and Nancy, could be seen as sidebars to the protagonists, but both Velez and, to a slightly lesser extent, Steele, assert a very strong presence. Velez embraces Val, infusing the character with considerable fire and determination. Steele’s Nancy combines self-confidence and a kind of “aw shucks” detachment, a self-deprecation that makes her feel like less of an intrusion in the “neighborhood.”
Clint Ramos’s detailed exterior set, which also permits scenes to occur in Gary’s first floor apartment, is a tremendous aid to the production. In a show about rap, the sound must be stellar, and Leon Rothenberg’s design, along with Michael Sandlofer’s original music, does the trick. Driscoll Otto finds moments to pop in some flashy lighting, which provide some fun tableaus. One minor quibble: Kara Harmon’s costumes, especially for the women. Their clothing doesn’t have the kind of relaxed realism that the action demands.
With The Purists, McCabe has written a comic drama that not only has a lot to say, but delivers its messages with an enormous amount of playful vim and vigor. That is a rarity today. In fact, this is a work of theater that makes the same demands as the best kind of rap — to understand what you have heard, you will need to experience it more than once.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Associate Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He is the current chair of the Maine Arts Commission, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.