Purlie is a vibrantly angry musical based on Ossie Davis' acclaimed Purlie Victorious! Set during the civil rights era, it tells the story of an uneducated but bookish black preacher-cum-con-man named Purlie who has returned home from up north with a plan to wrest the black community's church away from Old Captain, a rich cotton farmer who somehow missed the fact that slavery no longer exists. This fiery declaration of African-American independence, which launched the career of The Jeffersons' Sherman Hemsley, was a breakthrough for black culture. It proved once and for all that black-themed shows could find success on the Great White Way. Though it has since become an American standard, Purlie's indictment of white oppression can still pack quite a wallop. For Krosness, a blond-haired, blue-eyed man whose roots are planted deep in East Memphis soil, dealing with such strong subject matter and a predominantly black cast has been quite an adventure.
"For me every show is about learning. And whether by osmosis or association this seemed like a great chance to broaden my horizons," he says. "Of course I was a little intimidated. I knew I would make mistakes. I knew I would step on some toes and put my foot in my mouth and that there would be things I was ignorant of until I put my foot in my mouth. It wasn't something I shied away from." Osmosis and association aside, he hopes that his production will likewise step on the audience's toes from time to time. "This is a story about slavery after slavery has been abolished. It's about generations of black people raised on this plantation who don't fully realize that there is another way. Old Captain says, 'That's the way it is, that's the way it's always been, and that's how it has to be.' I would venture to say that there are places where this social order still exists. That's the thing I would like audiences to take home with them."
Krosness' declaration of ignorance belies his understanding of both the text and its relationship to geography. He's not blind to the fact that GCT's predominantly white audiences may be taken aback by Purlie's somewhat heavy-handed message.
"I really hope that doesn't happen," he says hesitantly. "I hope people learn from it rather than being offended. I know that when the Black Rep did Having Our Say at Circuit a few years ago some people thought it was 'white-bashing.' I just thought of it as a history lesson."
Krosness has been fortunate enough to have Ruddy Garner on board as choreographer. In addition to having choreographed Purlie on three other occasions, this native Memphian was Gregory Hines' assistant for 10 years and appeared in such films as The Cotton Club and Tap with Sammy Davis Jr. His Broadway credits include Bubblin' Brown Sugar with Cab Calloway and Tommy Tune's production of My One and Only.
"Ruddy has been very gracious and understanding," Krosness says. "He's done the show three times before, so he knows how it's done. But he understands that I haven't done the show before and that I need to explore. He also knows that our chorus members aren't really dancers and he's very considerate and understanding of this. He has a phrase I just love. After working on a number with the chorus he'll say, 'Okay, that was good. Now take it home and let it marinate.' I like that. 'Let it marinate.'"
Krosness sounds tired. It's not something I really expect from the typically energetic director and performer whom I have known since we both walked onto the Rhodes College campus back in 1985. But he has just finished a five-hour rehearsal and has to be at WKNO early the next morning to tape a Checking on the Arts segment. He's got Purlie on the brain. "It's been a real struggle to get this thing together," he says, "but the performers amaze me. They are all incredibly talented and have minds like steel traps. Like I said, [most of them] aren't dancers, but all of them are really getting it. I think things are really going to come together." Suddenly his energy comes rushing back and he adds, "I hope this show slaps some people in their faces."
Through September 9th.