MUST SEE: “THE PURISTS” presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the BCA Calderwood Pavilion. Tony and Grammy Award-winner Billy Porter (FX “Pose,” “Kinky Boots”) directs this world premiere hip hop dramedy by actor Dan McCabe in his debut as a playwright. It’s timely, wise, entertaining, funny as hell, with a killer cast. The title is rich, at first suggesting “the purist” cultural boundaries we draw to separate ourselves from one another, but ultimately suggesting the pure, untainted connections between us as human beings beneath our differences. The most important boundary may be that which defines our true selves. If we have cultivated our own authentic identities, it follows that we can recognize and respect the unique voices of others.
This is the dramatic and emotional distance traveled by the central characters here and whom we first meet on a bifurcated stage. One half of the stage is the front stoop of an apartment building in Queens, a forum from which many funny, fraught, painful and enlightening conversations will flow. There’s rapper turned D.J. Mr. Bugz (J.Bernard Calloway) whose layered turn is equal parts vulnerability and strength. He regularly kicks it around with longtime pal Lamont Born Cipher (a powerful Morocco Omari) who’s experiencing a career lull as a successful hip hop artist and is currently living in his sister’s basement. The other half of the stage is the interior of the apartment of Gerry Brinsler (John Scurti), a telemarketer who loves show tunes. It’s no accident that the first tune we hear is “Getting to Know You” from “The King and I,” and a pivotal scene at the climax of Act I takes place after one character crosses the stage into another’s domain, and the boundary between their separate worlds begins to dissolve.
When two female performers enter the picture, the show goes up a notch. There’s Val Kano played by the uproariously funny Analisa Velez who “segways” onto the stage and into the conversation, blunt and sassy. When she takes on an hysterically bubbly and equally hilarious hip hop fan Nancy Reinstein (Izzie Steele) who’s hard at work on a hip hop musical about Amelia Earhart (!), the crazy collision of their worlds leads to an explosive free style rap battle that brings the house down and pumps the dialogue up.
Various questions debated include: Who’s the king of hip hop: Biggie, Tupac, Eminem, or my nephew? Who can we live without: Cole Porter, Gershwin, Richard Rodgers or Sondheim? “On Golden Pond” or “Boogie Nights”? As diverting as these conversations are on the surface, the depths they plumb are significant: What is pure hip hop? What constitutes cultural appropriation? The women take on misogyny and hyper masculinity, and widen the conversation which has already touched on race, and sexuality, and is about to enter the realm of friendship and its boundaries: what’s private and what’s public? The show asks in plain terms, what deference do we owe ourselves and each other personally, culturally, socially? How much tolerance can we muster for anyone who is different from ourselves? In other words– how broad is our humanity?
I loved this show out of the box. It was instantly relatable, thoroughly engaging, and brought out into the open crucial universally relevant questions often hidden in this milieu. The production is well-paced, balancing the one-liners and tough silences. It held me. My one quibble is the ending– the play seems to just stop. Haven’t made up my mind about whether the soft ending reverberates or not. In any case– it’s all good and I recommend it to everyone. Bring the family and listen in. Now extended through October 6 at the BCA CALDERWOOD!