“Purlie” – Black Theatre Troupe

This review aired on KBAQ May 12, 2014


Black Theatre Troupe, The Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center
Phoenix, AZ

“Purlie” is a rousing, soul-inspired musical that must explode across the stage to become a vibrant gospel show.  The current Black Theatre Troupe production falters on so many levels that it sputters and slogs through the throbbing musical score and the book scenes, based on Ossie Davis’ play “Purlie Victorious,” are dreadfully lethargic.

The show opens in the recent past of South Georgia where the tribulations of the Old South live on and Blacks remain second class citizens.  The all Black segregated church of Reverend Purlie preaches freedom during the funeral of the hated Ol’ Cap’n.  The action then shifts back to before the funeral where Purlie comes to get his deceased Aunt’s inheritance left by the Ol’ Cap’n’s wife.  Things get confusing as Purlie hopes the inheritance will allow him to buy the church.

There are a variety of problems with the weak production.  The first is that director/choreographer Laurie Trygg allows the show to dawdle where it should blow the roof off the theater.  Trygg is also straddled with a cast that ranges from two excellent performers to many embarrassingly inept players.  The good singers and actors can’t compensate for the weak performers so the show looks sloppy and drags dreadfully.  The director allows too many characters to be portrayed as tired stereotypes instead of vibrant people.  The small band conducted by Liz Spencer instills no spark in the cast.

The two leads are strong.  T. A. Burrows is a swinging and jiving Purlie while Anne-Lise Koyabe is an impressive Lutiebelle, the person who should inherit the money Purlie hopes to get for his church.  The rest of the cast struggles to create believable interpretations and much of the ensemble singing is not up to the show’s musical demands.

“Purlie” again brings up what is becoming a recurrent problem at the Black Theatre Troupe.  Production quality is far below what the company has presented in the past.  With the company’s impressive new theater facility, the Black Theatre Troupe needs to get its shows back to the winning standards the company often achieved in the past.

“Purlie” should be a rousing gospel musical as it was back in 1970 when I first saw the show on Broadway and was overwhelmed by its throbbing power to bring the Black vision of the still segregated South to theatergoers.  This lame “Purlie” continues through May 18.  For tickets, call the Black Theatre Troupe box office at 602-258-8129 or order tickets online at www.blacktheatretroupe.org.

Grade: D