By Kay Kipling
When the Sarasota area theater season officially “opens,” it opens with a bang; over a few days’ time you can find yourself running from one show to another. That’s why I’m just now catching up with Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s season opener, Purlie.
It’s a rarely seen show these days, although it was nominated for several Tony awards when it first hit Broadway in 1970. Today, this musical version of Ossie Davis’ play, Purlie Victorious, about a black preacher in a south Georgia town trying to regain his church sometimes sits a little oddly in its tone and its intentionally broad characterizations of both blacks and whites. While a lot of Purlie is played for laughs, the laughs can be uncomfortable in light of our more politically correct viewpoint in 2013—even though there’s no doubt of Davis’ intentions of pointing out the absurdity of segregation and racism.
That said, the WBTT show, under the direction of Jim Weaver, has some things to recommend it, including likeable performances and lively musical numbers.
The play opens with a prologue depicting a service for the late, unlamented Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (David Abolafia), an unapologetic segregationist who’s long kept the African-Americans in his community under his thumb and in debt to his company store. (By the way, the action is set in a time “not too long ago.”) Even the Cap’n’s guitar-playing, left-leaning son (Lawrence M. Mazza) has a hard time really mourning the old coot, siding more with the black people he knows, including the housekeeper who’s basically raised him (Dr. Lonnetta M. Gaines).
Then we segue into the plot that got us to that funeral: Purlie (Earley Dean) arrives back at the home of his brother and sister-in-law (Emmanuel Cadet and Ariel Blue) with a young woman named Lutiebelle (Gia McGlone) in tow. He’s got his heart set on using her to get a $500 inheritance that’s in the hands of the Ol Cap’n, and Lutiebelle’s got her heart set on Purlie. The question is: Can the simple but sweet Lutiebelle successfully pass herself off as the true, more worldly heir?
That’s about all there is to the storyline, but the cast enacts it with energy, albeit some fairly cartoonish interpretations. McGlone is all big eyes and big smiles as the adoring Lutiebelle, engaging on her solo I Got Love (probably the best-known song of the show). Dean, a WBTT regular, shines when he gets taken away by the power of his own preacher rhetoric, as he frequently does. Cadet is amusing as an Uncle Tom-ish character who knows how to get along with his racist master, the Cap’n, and Blue, as usual, packs a lot of zest into her role as his more determined wife. She and Dean have a nice moment comparing the virtues of living in the South versus the North on Down Home, and she also delivers on Act II’s He Can Do It.
The leads are supported by a fairly large (by WBTT standards) ensemble that adds to the spirit of the show on numbers like the gospel song Walk Him Up the Stairs and the wistful First Thing Monday Mornin’. While there are occasional awkwardnesses here (as much due to the script as anything else), Purlie still provides some entertaining songs and performances.
Purlie continues through Dec. 15; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to wbttsrq.org.