Dan McCabe — Back at the Huntington, This Time as Playwright

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday September 13, 2019

Seven years ago Dan McCabe appeared on the Virginia Wimberly Theatre in Stephen Karam's much-lauded play, "Sons of the Prophet," where he played a geography geek with a passing interest in "The Book of Mormon." Little did he think then that he'd be back on the same stage; not as an actor, but a playwright with the premiere of his latest play, "The Purists," directed by the multi-talented Billy Porter, the Tony-winner and Emmy-nominated ("Pose") actor/director who has directed at the Huntington on productions of "Top Dog/Underdog" (Elliot Norton Award) and "The Colored Museum."

That Porter is attached to the project may be why it has considerable buzz. Even before the first performance on August 30, the show has been extended through October 6. For more information, visit the Huntington Theatre Company website.

The premise of his play sounds like the hook to a joke: Did you hear the one about a hip-hop DJ and a show queen meeting on a stoop in Queens? In this case, the punch line can be found in McCabe's play. The men have little in common — Lamont (Morocco Omari) is a hip-hop DJ past his glory days and Gerry (John Scurti) is a telesales director with more than a penchant for show tunes. At the play's opening, he is listening to "Getting to Know You," but that is soon drown out by Public Enemy's "Shut 'Em Down" from Lamont's boombox.

What first starts as a confrontation, develops into conversation as the pair are revealed to be simpatico about one thing: their devotion to purity of the art forms they dearly love. For Lamont, it is hip-hop, which he thinks is moving away from its roots and the artists that made it a phenomenon in the 1980s; while for Gerry it is a Broadway ruled by jukebox musicals, Disney and entertainments aimed for tourists.

They are joined by rapper Mr. Bugz (J Bernard Calloway) and two female MCs, Nancy (Izzie Steele) and Val (Analisa Velez), who participate in an impromptu rap battle that turns the play into a discussion of race, class and sexuality. EDGE spoke to McCabe recently between rehearsals to talk about "The Purists."

What's a purist?

EDGE: You are almost done with this process of having your play produced at the Huntington, but are you still doing rewrites?

Dan McCabe: Yes. Some are based on just watching or feeling that I could tweak a scene. Some are based on the characteristics of the actors. I love listening to what people say and sometimes the actors say things in rehearsals and I will incorporate it into the script. It is weird because everything is always moving and changing until we get to opening night. Like I wrote the first draft three years ago, but it is kind of fun to try new things out and realize something is excessive and cut it. You have to let some things go and be flexible and see what is going to help the play evolve.

EDGE: How did the play happen for you?

Dan McCabe: The initial inspiration from the play came from the characters of Lamont and Jerry. I was very interested in these two types of people who on the outside very different. They are the kind of people who you wouldn't think would be on stage together — the kind of people who wouldn't even know each other, never mind have any interaction. And then I find this similarity between them — they are both purists in their own ideas and their own ways, but both in different lanes — one in the hip-hop culture and one in musical theater.

EDGE: How would you define a purist?

Dan McCabe: You can be a purist about anything — about music, about movies. The idea of a purist is someone that no matter what the subject matter is or the art form, they like the original. I know a lot of people that are purists. They like the way it started and think that's the way it should be. A lot of purists resist change. And a lot of times whether things change for the better or the worst, people I know that are purists don't like that. They want it to be like what it was in their day.

Tricky times

EDGE: Do you empathize with purists?

Dan McCabe: Completely. I mean it depends, like everything. I empathize but also think they can be a little bit close-minded. It's a little bit of both. I can see it in myself. I see some things now that I think were better when I was coming of age or when it was the golden age of the things I am into.

EDGE: How did you familiarize yourself with both genres of music you talk about in the play? And how integral is the music?

Dan McCabe: The music is very integral. I have always been a big hip-hop person. It is the music I grew up with since I was 14-15 in New York, and I did read a couple of books about the history of it just to deepen my knowledge, but I knew a lot. And I have been going to the theater all my life so I think I have a decent knowledge of musical theater. So the music itself is a big part of the play. It is a play that has music within it, all the music is diegetic. Every single character in the play is involved or wants to be involved in music.

EDGE: Billy Porter, who is directing, describes the play as bold. What's bold about it?

Dan McCabe: I think it is bold in the sense that there are certain kinds of conversations that might be difficult for people to have in real life. Conversations that make people uncomfortable; conversations that happen between individuals who are on the surface very different, whether that means race-wise, sexuality-wise, class-wise. So in this play, the characters are not afraid to discuss these things and be true to themselves, and also making a real effort to understand the other's point of view. So I think in that sense it is bold.

EDGE: Is it harder now for people to come together over things?

Dan McCabe: I think it depends. I think it can be a lot harder. I think if we are looking at a bigger scale thing in America, there is a big divide. It all depends on where you are from and how you are raised. I am very fortunate, in a sense, in the way I was raised. I experienced many different types of people when I was growing up — meaning race, sexuality, class, cultures. And a lot of people don't in their upbringing, which is not their fault. Depending on where you are from and how you are raised, you can be surrounded by people who are just like you, so you don't know what other people are like. But I think on a big scale right now, it is difficult. These are tricky times.

Why a stoop?

EDGE: Why did you set the play on a city stoop?

Dan McCabe: I think the stoop is an alternative version of the barbershop — a place to hang out and talk and riff. This play has a slice of life nature to it. Things are happening, but it also it is about these characters hanging out, especially in the summer when you don't want to be inside, but you also want to be close to your apartment in case you need something. So a stoop, especially in New York, has been a hub for people to hang out.

EDGE: At the center of the play are the two 'purists,' Lamont and Gerry?

Dan McCabe: I would describe Lamont as certainly a purist, as the title suggests. He's past his prime in terms of his career. He was a lot more successful and well-known 20 years ago, in the 1990s. His biggest fear is that the originators of hip-hop will eventually be forgotten, so that is part of his resistance to any kind of change in the culture. He can see into the future and see that the architects of this culture are going to be forgotten and be taken over by something else. And in his life as well, because he is not as relevant as he once was and is a deep fear for him.

Gerry is similar to Lamont in the sense that he is stuck in the past. He is more stuck in the past. He is very likable but very curmudgeonly. He is very smart and very knowledgeable about his passions, musical theater specifically; and he thinks everything was better in his day. When things started to change, when the kind of shows and kind of content that started to go Broadway shifted from his heyday, he doesn't like it. And there are hints that he would rather be doing something else — something more creative and artistic.

From actor to playwright

EDGE: There are also three other characters, Mr. Bugz and two female MCs. How do you describe them?

Dan McCabe: Mr. Bugz is going through a change, for sure. And he's the one who is struggling with identity. And there are also two aspiring female MCs in the play; one is slightly more traditional — she interned at a radio station; she is peddling her mixtape around; every dime she gets she invests into studio time. She's trying to make it as an MC. She used to battle a lot, she was an aggressive battle rapper. The other character, Nancy, is a mixture of an MC and a theater artist. She was a theater major in college, probably, and a hardcore feminist; but also loves, loves rap. She discovered rap and is trying to fuse rap and theater by writing a show that fuses the two together. And she is a little conflicted because she is a lot of misogyny in hip hop which she is morally against, but loves the music; which puts her in a moral predicament.

EDGE: I remember seeing you in "Sons of the Prophet" years ago on the same stage where your play is going to be performed. Now you are back, but in a different role. How did playwriting happen? Were you always doing both?

Dan McCabe: They were always there together. I started writing in high school. We had one-act plays when I was a sophomore and junior in high school and I wrote for those. And I fell into acting professionally when I was fairly young, but I was also writing the whole time, but more for myself. I went to undergrad for playwriting, but was getting more work and being known as an actor. But once I got into Julliard for playwriting, that changed the game and made me shift into diving full-head into writing. And also recognizing that I liked more than acting.

EDGE: Why?

Dan McCabe: Acting is very difficult. I love it, but you got to go on auditions and it can be very emotionally challenging. Writing — I can write wherever I want and I like that freedom.

EDGE: How did Billy Porter get involved in the project?

Dan McCabe: I sent him the play. I saw that he had directed at the Huntington. I didn't know him, but his productions were very well received. I had a feeling that the content of the play would speak to him, and I was right because he read the play and met and had a long talk. He loved the play and just wanted to do it. Sometimes it just sort of clicks. I didn't know him and he could have just said no and it could have not happened. But I took a chance and the stars aligned. And I was lucky in that he read the play before he read "Pose;" if he had already been involved in that, it may not have happened at all. So I was just very lucky.

"The Purists" runs August 30 through October 6 at the Virginia Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Huntington Theatre Company website.

Watch this YouTube preview for "The Purists":

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].

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