Huntington’s ‘Purists’: Staying true to your roots

From the left, John Scurti, Morocco Omari and J. Bernard Calloway in the Hunington Theatre Company’s “The Purists.” Photo Credit: T Charles Ericksonn© T Charles Erickson 

BOSTON —  A large black man carting a  boombox playing a hip-song loudly and proudly stands in front of a Queens apartment building as a sixty-something gay, overweight white man pokes his head out of the window of his apartment and hollers at the large man down below, who responds in kind, profanely.

They will eventually be joined by a former rapper whose career has been stalled, a young Puerto Rican woman still finding her way and a young white woman who doesn’t see why race should stand in the way of a rap career.

These aren’t five characters in search of an author – no, they have one most definitely in Dan McCabe, whose new work “The Purists” gets the Huntington Theatre Company’s season off to a rousing start in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts.

McCabe, who also acts and appeared in the Huntington’s 2011 production of Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet,” and who is a recent graduate of a playwrighting fellowship at the Julliard School, has been developing the work for some time with director Billy Porter. Porter’s acting career is still going strong, but he is now helming his third work at the Huntington, where he appears to have found an artistic home after successes with “The Colored Museum” and “Topdog/Underdog.”

Yes, at least two of the characters are “purists” – broadly defined as someone who is a stickler for tradition al rules or structures when it comes to something they love. When it comes to his tastes in musical theater, Gerry Brinsler, a white gay man in his 60s “who used to be a millionaire” asks composers such as Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, to “come on down.”  Not so fast, Andrew Lloyd Webber. And, by the way: All hip-hop is trash.

Gerry thus finds himself at odds often with Lamont Born Cipher (Morocco Omari), a forty-something rapper who once found himself at the top of the charts but is now reduced to raging against white interlopers despoiling the genre and record companies on behalf of his rapper nephew. He longs for the days when the pioneers of rap ruled the roost and is bitter that his nephew, still struggling to make his way with a style that emphasizes positive themes, is someone the record companies don’t know how to “market.”

Izzy Steele and J. Bernard Calloway in “The Purists.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Gerry’s war on hip-hop and rap also gets the attention of Dr. Bugz (J. Bernard Calloway), an older hip-hop DJ who gets the evening off to a spectacular start by buzzing two turntables and getting the audience involved, up and clapping and swaying with the music. It’s a great way to get the blood of theater-goers going and getting them involved in the story right from the start.

You might call “The Purists” a front-porch drama, except there’s no porch, just a stoop on the front of the down-on-its-luck apartment building in the neighborhood of Sunnyside in the borough of Queens. The building is artfully conceived and executed by set designer Clint Ramos, complete with a cut-out of Gerry’s chaotic living space.

The stop is also a landing spot for Val Kano (Analisa Velez), a young Puerto Rican woman who  delivers drugs to Gerry with a Segway-type scooter, but is also fully immersed in the hip-hop culture and struggling to make her mark in a world dominated by men.

Eventually, they will be joined by a young woman named Nancy Reinstein (Izzy Steele) from suburban Scarsdale who works for Gerry in theater telemarketing but is also in the world of rap, ecstatic at meeting Cipher, conversant with the work of Dr. Bugz, currently performing in — you have to love it — a rap musical about the life of Amelia Earhart.

Lamont is skeptical of whether Nancy should even be allowed to participate, but he agrees with Bugz and Gerry to judge a freestyle rap battled between Val and Nancy.

McCabe, as a young playwright, shows a remarkable talent for both drawing the characters and then figuring out what works when it comes out of his creations’ mouths. And he’s able to do it with characters as diverse as an aging white gay man, two black men of different ages, a young Latina and a white suburban woman.

The dialogue, is funny, sharp, pointed and certainly has the ring of authenticity. McCabe is at his best when there is interplay and things get testy when Gerry’s choice of words when referring to young blacks might be racist. But there is discussion over whether Gerry is racist or just said something racist.

McCabe weaves in some subplots about Lamont’s aging mother and a secret Dr. Bugz is harboring that could dramatically affect his standing in the community.

Porter, for his part, keeps the young playwright from wandering too far away from the stoop and assures that each member of the cast is safely grounded in his/her character.

The principals in “The Purists” are proud, often profane. They fight, disagree, finally agree to disagree, all without backing down from what they love, what they believe in and the way the world should be.

In the end, they are still “The Purists” they always were.

 “The Purists.” Written by Dan McCabe. Directed by Billy Porter. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company in association with Big Beach. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 6.,