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Comedy & commentary

The musical comedy Purlie was written in the early days of the civil rights movement, but it's aimed to entertain.

Published June 6, 2003

Elizabeth Edelson decided to stage Purlie as much for local actors as for local audiences.

"I try to do things a little differently," she said. "I like to give artists opportunities they usually don't get in community theater."

Edelson, who heads a 4-year-old group called MAD (short for Music, Acting and Dance) wanted to tap into Tampa's substantial pool of African-American actors. So she chose Purlie, one of the few musical comedies that called for a mostly black cast.

"There aren't a lot of good roles for African-American actors in musical comedies, especially in community theater," Edelson said. "There may be some smaller roles, but there are very seldom lead roles."

As soon as the word got out that Edelson's company was going to stage the musical, local actors started expressing interest. Some of the area's best and best known African-American actors wanted the chance to shine.

Purlie opens tonight at the New Place Multicultural Arts Center on the fringes of Ybor City. Although it is a community theater show, many of the actors work mostly in professional productions.

Frank Burns, who plays Purlie, was recently in Peninsula Arts Foundation's Manhattan Casino. Flo Tillman and Edward Walker Jr. are fresh from roles in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

But Edelson also had audiences in mind when she settled on Purlie. It's partly a social commentary - written and first produced in the early days of the civil rights movement - but mostly it's great entertainment, she said.

"Every song's a toe-tapper," she said.

When she was researching the play, Edelson said, she read a review of an early production. The critic had made check marks in his program next to songs he thought were exceptional so he'd remember to mention them. When he was writing his review, he was surprised to realize he had checked every song.

Purlie, which deals with life on a modern-day plantation, started as a straight play, Purlie Victorious, penned by actor and social activist Ossie Davis. Davis adapted his script into a screenplay that became a 1963 movie (Gone Are the Days!) starring Davis, his wife Ruby Dee and Alan Alda.

(If you've never heard of the movie, it may be because it was nonsensically retitled, The Man from C.O.T.T.O.N. to cash in on the popularity of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)

In 1970, Davis again adapted his script, this time into a stage musical with music by Gary Geld and lyrics by Peter Udell, in which Davis starred with Melba Moore. That, in turn became a hit TV movie in 1981.

Purlie will be the first musical theater production in the New Place Multicultural Center, which opened earlier this year and offers productions, classes and art exhibits.

It's an ideal spot for the production, Edelson said. Besides being devoted to multicultural arts, the center is in an old church, and the prologue and epilogue of Purlie are set in a church.

If you go

Purlie runs through June 14 at the New Place Multicultural Center, 2811 N 17th St.

Curtain time is 8 p.m. June 6, 7, 13 and 14; 2 p.m. June 8; and 7:30 p.m. June 12. Tickets are $14 general admission and $12 for students and seniors.

Call (813) 241-4706.

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