Aesthetically Speaking

Purdy directs Penumbra’s August Wilson season

“When Penumbra Theatre artistic director Lou Bellamy asked me to work on this historic retrospective of the August Wilson canon, I was thrilled”, states nationally-lauded director Claude Purdy. “When Penumbra Theatre artistic director Lou Bellamy asked me to work on this historic retrospective of the August Wilson canon, I was thrilled”, states nationally-lauded director Claude Purdy. Purdy, who took part in Penumbra’s dawning and who has worked at other prestigious venues such as The Guthrie Theater, Cleveland Playhouse and American Theatre of Paris, adds, “I am proud of my long association with Penumbra and thrilled that it is now the preeminent African American theater in the country.”

The admiration is mutual. Bellamy literally had his pick of directors from across America for this Penumbra season which is dedicated to Wilson’s work and culminates with the area premier of King Hedley II. He chose Purdy to direct the opener, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. “Claude is down with the Penumbra aesthetic,” Bellamy says. “He understands it completely because he helped build it. In many ways, he set down the aesthetic that Penumbra follows to this day. It’s really appropriate that the same dude who directed our first show is directing the first show of the 25th anniversary. It’s just perfect that he do that.”

The long association of which Purdy speaks and the first show to which Bellamy refers dates back a quarter-century to the inception of African American theatre in Minnesota with the staging of Steve Carter’s Eden at Penumbra Theatre Company. It also led to Wilson arriving at Penumbra where he would see his first play produced before eventually ascending to national prominence and worldwide renown. Purdy had guided then-unknown actor Ernie Hudson, who later starred in such films as Sugar Hill and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, through Theatre In The Round’s production of [author] The Great White Hope. He interviewed at Penumbra for a directing job and the rest, as they say, is history. “August came out,” he recalls, “while I was rehearsing and I introduced him to Lou Bellamy and later introduced the idea of doing this Black Bart piece to Lou and Lou later produced it. August came up to visit, because he had done a draft of [the play] which was something we had talked about in Pittsburgh. [It was] based on a series of his poems I’d heard at a reading.” The piece evolved into Black Bart and the Sacred Hills a musical about the legendary desperado who has largely escaped recorded history of America’s storied Wild West. “I knew I was entering the world of a miraculous poet who was able to find his way through the cultural, the political, all the way to the labyrinth of the human heart.”

Any playwright’s greatest strength is immediacy. Accordingly, an author’s most effective resource, after crafting strong text, is a director who understands the importance of conveying behavior that directly engages the audience. It’s hard to think of any director who does this better than Purdy. He goes, however, an important step further in being a well accomplished hand at directing Wilson’s plays in general and Joe Turner’s Come And Gone in particular. Bellamy notes, “Any director has to be smart and worldly —Claude has a world view. He’s well read in all kinds of ways. What he brings to it that’s special is his respect for the dignity of Black people. Once you have that, it, pun intended, colors all your choices.” Bellamy adds, “He’s got special relationship with August. He was around when August wrote [many of] his plays. His was the production of ‘Joe Turner’ was the one that toured with Roscoe Lee Brown and Jim Craven in the cast. He knows this work backward and forward.” Wilson couldn’t agree more and attests in this month’s Mpls/St. Paul magazine, “Claude did an absolutely spectacular production…at the ATC in San Francisco which they later did in L.A. It’s one of my favorite productions of that play.”

Purdy reflects, “I remember taking notes from him and trying to get the right temperature for the charact

October 14, 2002
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