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The Black Rep's Purlie: 'A Biting Satire' About Race Relations

Detail from the poster for Purlie
The Black Rep website

The musical "Purlie" is a “biting satire” about race relations according to The Black Rep founder Ron Himes. Himes is adamant about the show’s contemporary relevance in view of the Ferguson protests.

“The play deals with civil rights issues; it deals with racial bigotry; it deals with Southern white privilege and a community that is not willing to change and integrate; and that all sounds very familiar,” he said.

The Black Rep’s presentation of the Tony award winning play begins Wednesday, Sept. 10 at the Edison Theater at Washington University. The musical follows boisterous preacher Purlie Victorious who returns to his hometown with a scheme to reclaim his inheritance and buy a local church. His efforts are initially frustrated by a white plantation owner.

"Purlie" is one of Himes’ favorite musicals and was scheduled for the fall season before Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent protests in Ferguson. Himes believes the relationship between current events and the play’s themes are inescapable. Although certain characters in the play are exaggerations, Himes thinks they can stand in for current city figures.

“You know it’s written as a biting satire so Ol' Cap'n could easily be the mayor or the police chief in Ferguson,” said Himes. The last few weeks have affected the play's development.

“We’ve been in rehearsals all during this process, and I really feel that this play speaks to the issues of how we can speak out about what is going on in this community and how the power of the theater can address these issues,” Himes said.

Actress Alicia Like stars in the play as Lutiebelle, a high energy but sheltered young woman central to Purlie's plans. Like’s involvement in the production was directly affected by the Ferguson protests. She was late to their first rehearsal. She was helping her husband who had been arrested the night before during a Ferguson protest.

“There is a section of the play where Purlie feels like he needs to avenge Lutiebelle, and in one of the songs it says that we’re tired of fearing for our men’s lives. And that’s how I felt when my husband got arrested,” Like said of the experience. Like felt her husband’s arrest was unwarranted. “You don’t get a master’s degree in public education if you want to break the law.”

Like agrees with Himes’ perception that the musical uniquely speaks to a St. Louis audience. “Throughout the play there is this theme and it comes from the monologues Purlie delivers, this theme of black people valuing who they are,” she said.  “When black people are being killed by police officers that represent them, then black people begin to feel like they are not valued by the country they live in.”

Like comfortably switches between discussing the protests in Ferguson, which she sees as “a budding new civil rights movement,” and discussing her character in the show. The actress prepared for her role by watching recordings of past performances on YouTube and thoroughly examining the script, which is “flush with information for the character.” She describes Lutiebelle as over the top and bright eyed. Like describes herself as upbeat and bubbly but says she used a secret weapon to prepare for rehearsals, “lots of coffee.”

"Purlie" begins The Black Rep’s new partnership with the Edison. The Rep will also produce "Once on this Island" at the theater this spring. The musical runs Sept. 10-Sept.21.

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