Aesthetically Speaking

Title role in August Wilson’s “King Headley II” Penumbra’s Lester Purry, the quintessential actor, gifted performer

Lester Purry, beyond being a gifted performer, is the quintessential Actor’s actor. Without the slightest tic lingering from one role to another, Purry reinvents himself to completely and authentically… Lester Purry, beyond being a gifted performer, is the quintessential Actor’s actor. Without the slightest tic lingering from one role to another, Purry reinvents himself to completely and authentically inhabit each character. Not many actors around these parts can do that. You have Faye Price, Kevin West, Claudia Wilken, Brian Goranson, Buffy Sedlachek and, maybe just maybe a few others. It should explain why he was a prominent Penumbra Theatre Company fixture while he lived in the Twin Cities and Penumbra artistic director Lou Bellamy keeps luring him back.

The vastly accomplished Penumbra company member returns in a volcanic portrayal of the title character of August Wilson’s King Hedley II. He shares the stage with film and television star Ernie Hudson, and theatre legend Rhodessa Jones along with fellow company members James Craven, Tonia Jackson and David Alan Anderson. His previous credits include Le Roi Jones’ Dutchman, Carlyle Brown’s Buffalo Hair and Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky. Purry spoke with Insight News about various aspects of the craft.

Insight News: How did you approach King Hedley?

Lester Purry: Of all the characters I’ve played, Hedley is the furthest from my experience. The guy, number one, is rude to his mother. He’s verbally rude to her. I grew up in Pickens, SC. And if you know anything about a Southern mother, I would never dream of doing that. So, I put myself in the situation of what would it be like to have never experienced [parental] love. His father died when he was three-years-old. His mother was absent. The world around him was hostile. He never felt love, so he didn’t know how to express it. If you’ve never felt love in any capacity, the only emotion you know is anger. It’s the easiest sometimes, the most comfortable, to deal with. That’s how I approached him. [He] has to manage his life [and] doesn’t have anything to regulate or control the anger, but, it pops out and then he tries to go on and, before you know, he’s back at it. He’s manic-depressive. I looked at Mike Tyson, a little bit, for this role. There are times when you go, “Man, Mike, is a great gentle guy.” Then, he goes off. You ask, “Where did that come from?” Also, King has to deal with his environment and having never been able to accomplish anything. This man tries so hard and can never get it done. That does something to you.

IN: The dialogue sometimes is coarse. As a Christian, is that uncomfortable?

LP: I don’t use it in my personal life. But this guy has a certain life. There are Christians who won’t do this and I respect that. But, if my being a Christian says I can’t do this because the character curses, that means I can’t play anybody, pretty much. God puts people in every arena. There are some roles I won’t do.

IN: How does this role compare with other experiences performing August Wilson’s work.

LP: This is the most difficult. Character wise, line wise, it’s large. August writes the way people talk. This is his most gritty, realistic work, a part of life we don’t like to look at. It’s sad. Sometimes it’s just life. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is my favorite. As far as writing, you can’t beat that ending. Fences is probably my second.

IN: How is it being back at Penumbra?

LP: It’s great, man. This is the best theatre in the country. It’s so real. You have an opportunity to portray real life. That’s what Penumbra does. They put it up on the state. And I love it.

IN: What about the directors? Including Lou Bellamy, who directs this production?

LP: Lou, of course, I think, he picks directors who have the same type of vision that’s not going to get up there and falsify the human experience. So, I think he particularly picks directors who are going to do the real thing.

Concluding the 25th anniversary season, August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” runs at Penumbra Theatre Company,

June 23, 2003
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