We’re on the Same Side: “The Purists”

J Bernard Calloway and John Scurti; Photo Credit: T Charles Ericksonn© T Charles Erickson.

Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company
By Dan McCabe
Directed by Billy Porter
Original music by Michael Sandlofer

Aug. 30 – Oct. 6, 2019
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
Boston, MA
Huntington on Facebook

Critique by Kitty Drexel

Editor’s Note: This article now includes an addendum by Noelani Kamelamela

(Boston) These are some terms and figures within hip hop culture that viewers should understand to better appreciate The Purists.

These are some terms and figures from musical theatre culture that viewers should understand.

  • Jerome Kern
  • George & Ira Gershwin
  • Bob Fosse 
  • Andrew Lloyd Weber 
  • National treasure, Bob Ross
  • Rapping in musicals
  • Annie + video 
  • Stephen Sondheim
  • Call center/Box office
  • The Golden Age of musical theatre

Oppression isn’t a contest. Virginia is mourning the 400th anniversary of slavery in the US. June 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The ADA wasn’t made law until 1990. The only people who win when marginalized communities fight are the rich, white people who make money from our oppression. No one is free until we are all free. Freedom must be intersectional.  

The Purists is about a small community of musically-minded friends living in Sunnyside, Queens. Mr. Bugz (J. Bernard Calloway) is a New York radio MC taking a break from his career to care for his dying mother. Gerry “G” Brinsler (John Scurti) is an aging queen with a love of the theatre who lives downstairs. Lamont (Morocco Omari), Val (Analisa Velez), and Nancy (Izzie Steele) are younger generations of music lovers that congregate on the building’s stoop. By bickering, the crew learns to navigate the personal boundaries that bring them closer to understanding each other. 

The Purists juxtaposes hip hop and musical theatre to symbolize the differences between Black and LGBTQ+ communities. As we get to know the characters who revere these music genres, we learn that these two communities share a lot in common: loyalty to the art form, respect for tradition, discipline, fear of change/youthful ignorance, and sincerity of belief that music does more good than it ever does harm. 

And yet, Capitalism says that Black and LGBTQ+ people are to be consumed by the masses for entertainment, not to be seen as human beings unless it’s fiscally convenient. Buyers get itchy and when their artists get uppity and step out of the buyer’s minimal comfort zone. The experiences of Black and LGBTQ+ artists are human experiences. Straight, white discomfort is a small price to pay for equality. 

The show’s opening scene/welcome monologue is lead by Calloway. He hypes up the very New England audience with call-and-response hooks and a kickin’ beat. Some of the audience was receptive to wiggling at their seats to the music; others were not. Calloway kindly pretends as if all of his audience was as involved as he. That’s because he’s a giver. 

In addition to their expansive individual performances, Calloway and Scurti some beautifully intimate moments together. In them, their characters aren’t neighbors so much as vulnerable humans sharing pain and comfort. Society’s demand for toxic masculinity takes a backseat to compassion. Even after a brief physical altercation, their characters retain mutual respectful despite their embarrassment. It shows depth in the characters and an impressive focus in the actors.   

This play has its intimate moments but the majority of the dialogue is comedic. Without the work of Morocco Omari, Analisa Velez, and Izzie Steele as the token white chic the production would be dry. Velez and Steele are great dancers and better rappers. I would see an Amelia Earheart rap musical if the two of them performed it together. That sounds fun (but not necessarily progressive).  

These actors and some of the crew, while fantastically talented, are not local. Ticket buyers concerned with supporting local talent should take note. 

Clint Ramos’s set design subverts city apartment living. The characters of color conduct their business on the street. As in, The Street is where a majority-white audience assumes that is where Black rappers live. Ramos’s design of Gerry’s big, gay apartment is set back from the street like a closet. The kind of closet that a man like Gerry may have walked in and out of as a gay man to stay safe.   

The cast: Photo Credit: T Charles Ericksonn© T Charles Erickson.

The Purists repeats a simple message at least three times: careless, insensitive words have unintentionally harmful consequences. Gerry shouldn’t call a Black kid on the train a thug (no one should). Lamont shouldn’t make assumptions about gay people (ditto). When a person of a minority tells another person not of that minority to say or not say something, they should listen. Don’t argue; don’t get defensive; listen.

The intentions don’t matter. Microaggressions matter. It is by having transparent conversations, respecting the humanity of others and implementing change that we put a stop to hate. Hate must end, and it requires all sides to work together to do it. 

Audiences who enjoyed the content, character work, and story of SpeakEasy Stage’s Between Riverside and Crazy, and Company One’s Hype Man: a break beat play will love The Purists.

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Addendum by Noelani Kamelamela

‘The Purists’ feels specific to New York City, its artists, and two art forms that have made a big impact on the East Coast and around the world:  hip-hop and musical theatre. This play gets to premiere in a post-Hamilton New England so that even the white folks around me could appreciate the hip-hop sound, even if they weren’t familiar with the lyrics or the beats.

The playwright, Dan McCabe, and the production team, allows the conversation around hip-hop’s origins to trade in both facts and feelings.  The sound that is currently hip-hop there is very different from its origins, and the sound represented by rappers in the show is definitely East Coast maybe from a few years ago.  In what is considered the golden age of hip-hop, primarily the recognized artists were Black people.

Although this is changing in a post-Hamilton world, musical theatre is perceived as something cultured and white.  In the golden age of Broadway, Black folks in particular only played oppressive roles as sidekicks and servants. Now, we are fortunate to live in a time where neither one of these genres are completely enfolded in one culture or another.  In fact, the idea of separate cultures at all, particularly in Queens, is ridiculous.

So, when characters of color call out a white man for racist language in the play, I was curious to see whether there would be a coming together of people with differences.  As a person of color who lives in Boston, one of the consistently most liberal while also being one of the most overtly homophobic (#StraightPride), racist spaces in America, this is a conversation I get to see a lot of, even when the offender isn’t a white person.  In the happier version of that interaction, which I have yet to see even in real life, everyone agrees to try to do better and be better, together as a community. The offender would thank the people bringing up the issue. Everyone would feel heard.

Watching a clueless person backpedal and try to excuse himself and dodge responsibility is the thing that actually happens.  These are messy stand-offs with ambiguous ends. Folks of color know that a person who says something racist will attempt to qualify saying a shitty thing by insisting it is just jokes or that he is not “really a racist” or not “really that kind of person.”  My least favorite kind of non-apology these days also tends to insist that the racist was “pushing boundaries” and is “learning” or “growing as an individual.” I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to start these exchanges: they are happening around us all the time and much like in ‘The Purists,’ very few white people are getting the real point. I’m thankful ‘The Purists’ kept this frustrating and familiar scenario as realistic as possible.  

At least, I feel that these situations are frustrating and familiar.  I believe that there were other members of the audience, not just folks of color, who concurred with me during the performance I attended.  The response onstage to being called out felt morally inadequate. The commonness of false claims of victimhood or being true victims of racism should stick with audience members who watch the show.  Forcing us to think about human behaviour and how we can do better is a good use of our time. I commend ‘The Purists’ for remaining pure when commenting on call outs.

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