Huntington's "The Purists": Queens for a Daze

John Scurti, Morocco Omari & J. Bernard Calloway in "The Purists"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The Purists, a comedy by Dan McCabe, is the season opener for Huntington Theatre Company, at the Calderwood in the South End. It's a challenging new work that's harboring two secrets. One is really an open secret, namely that it's Directed by Tony and Grammy winner Billy Porter, who never ceases to amaze whatever role he assumes, in front of or behind the scenes. The other is the predicament that one of its characters finds himself in, which is gradually revealed during the course of the play (and won't be spoiled here), which is what lifts this work beyond the comedic to the potentially tragic. There are laughs aplenty, but rest assured the playwright has more than a few thoughts to share about race, friendship and ultimately love. Behind the superficial banter of its quintet of actors, it's asking its audience to see how individual values and points of view can unite people because of these differences as opposed to despite them. If we're a bit dazed now and then it's partly due to the dazzling rap numbers that punctuate the play's progress.

John Scurti, Analisa Velez, J. Bernard Calloway, Izzie Steele & Morocco Omari in "The Purists"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The play opens with lively debates on a stoop in the Sunnyside area of Queens among black former rapper Lamont Born Cipher (Morocco Omari), DJ Mr. Bugz (J. Bernard Calloway), also black, and white showtune-loving telesales director Gerrry Brinsler (John Scurti, in his professional theatre debut). They spar about musical tastes leading to an impromptu rap battle between two younger aspiring emcees, Val (Analisa Velez), who is Puerto Rican, and Nancy (Izzie Steele), who is white. By the time all of them have been portrayed by this engaging ensemble, the audience is by and large won over by the sheer force of the performances and the detailed direction by Porter. The creative team, as typical for Huntington, provides crucial support, from the cleverly busy Scenic Design by Clint Ramos to the spot-on Costume Design by Kara Harmon, effective Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto and integral Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg, with frequent Musical Compositions by Michael Sandlofer. But it's fundamentally Porter's show, which is clear from how each of the characters is meticulously directed and not once out of character.

J. Bernard Calloway, Izzie Steele, Analisa Velez & Morocco Omari in "The Purists"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

What is out of character is some of the dialog, sometimes lost in the dialects, which sounds a bit forced (as when Val says “hoisted on your own petard”, or when Lamont references a Langston Hughes poem, “you done taken my blues and gone”, applied by him to white music executives and their usurping of black rap). It may require some patience to get to a particular plot point or two. With some tightening, especially in the initial byplay among the three male characters as they become more and more distinct from one another, this should help keep a stronger focus on the larger issues percolating beneath the surface. Even its title suggests several possible meanings, from one's choice of musical forms to racial identity or to one's place on the gender spectrum. In the end, just who are The Purists? Or who are not?

This intriguing world premiere has already been extended through October 6th.

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