Racial stereotypes, racial tensions, complex and conflicted issues of sexuality all manifest at the Boston Center for the Arts
“I need to exfoliate!” Exclaims Analisa Velez as Val Kano in Dan McCabe’s innovative and germane new drama The Purists. Directed by Grammy and Tony Award winner Billy Porter and starring Morocco Omari of Fox TV’s Empire, the play is a mordant and searing piece of art that begs the question: how well do we really know ourselves and each other minus the proverbial smoke screen of assumptions and stereotypes? Currently playing at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion in Back Bay’s South End neighborhood from Aug. 30th to Oct. 6th, 2019.
The basic premise of the play entails a motley and unlikely group of multiracial-multicultural friends who gather on the front steps of their Queens apartment building to jive about their respective musical passions. In the midst of it all is a former rap star, a hip-hop DJ, a show tunes lover and a couple of rapping girls. However, the play nears a Shakespearean crescendo when a rap battle between the two females spark underlying tensions that will have the characters question every thing they thought they knew about themselves, each other and the notion of friendship. The play essentially posits the question: is it possible for us to love and accept one another in spite of our differences; whether those differences are musical, sexual, sociopolitical, or racial?
Juilliard School fellow and playwright Dan McCabe wrote a scandalous, acerbic and visceral script speaking directly to the black experience with whites and conversely the black experience with other blacks within the sociopolitical context. Being himself a white man writing black characters perhaps demonstrates his adscititious knowledge and awareness of the black experience pertaining to how they relate to whites as well as to one another. He explores the tacit homophobia and issues of sexuality in the black community while simultaneously juxtaposing the complexities of a race conscious society and the inexorable tensions between blacks and whites who have to live in close proximity to one another.
When asked about his inspiration for the play by Huntington Theater director of New Work Charles Haugland, he spoke particularly of the two main characters, the white musical theater loving Gerry played by John Scurti, and the black hip-hop loving Lamont played by Morocco Omari:
“I started writing this around the summer of 2015. It started with two characters: Gerry and Lamont. I saw them as interesting people to be together on stage.—very different, but also similar in their ideals and what they believed in… I’ve always been a hip-hop person, but I also like…musical theater. So I thought it was interesting to have these people on stage that are super passionate about [one thing] and hate the other thing.”
And when it came to his knowledge and awareness of the black experience pertaining to how they relate to whites as well as to one another, he said, “[The] theme is two very different people coming together-which had a lot to do with how I was raised.” He went on to say, “…I went to a private high school in Jersey where my dad was a teacher. That was a very affluent school, whereas I grew up in the middle class buildings in Manhattan. And down the block from me were the lower income projects…I had a lot of different types of people around me…in terms of class and race…”
The Purists is a convulsion of emotional, satirical, and comical, although at times inimical, but ultimately convivial and delightful narrative of the human experience. Towards the end, much like the character Val, we all needed to “exfoliate” not only to remove dead skin cells from the surface of our skins, but the metaphoric removal of our preconceived notions of one another and to embrace new visions of a more accepting and empathetic society regardless of our racial or sexual identities and ultimately to reconsider our notions of “purity”-whether you’re a “purely” hyper masculine hip-hop fanatic or a “purely” ultra-androgynous show tunes frenetic –that we can never escape ourselves, no matter how much we try to shed the layers of our true natures by exfoliating or chipping away at our often ambiguous and complex humanity. I give this penetrating production a five out of five stars!
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Jacques Fleury’s book Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe. His second book It’s Always Sunrise Somewhere and Other Stories is a collection of previously published and critically acclaimed short fictional stories spanning the pervasive human condition. His CD A Lighter Shade of Blue as a lyrics writer with neo-folk group Sweet Wednesday is available on Itunes and Spotify.