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‘Purlie’ tack­les racial is­sues in the 1960s

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Grant Hayes plays Purlie in Magnolia Arts Center’s production of “Purlie.”

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BY MACKENZIE TEWKBURY
The Daily Reflector

Friday, June 8, 2018

When Mitch Butts saw “Purlie” on Broadway years ago, he walked out of the theater with his jaw dropped open.

That’s likely because it’s one of those shows he described as “a wonderful comedy, but inspirational that it will send chills down your spine.”

“Purlie” aims to tackle the racial issues in the 1960s — it is based in Georgia when Jim Crow Laws were still very much intact. It follows  preacher Purlie Victorius Judson as he tries to free the cotton pickers on Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s plantation.

Butts, a Magnolia Arts Center veteran and board member, is director of the show that opens tonight at the theater. He’s no stranger to the world of performing — “good gracious, I’ve been in theater for 30 years,” he said — and he’s been aware of “Purlie” since the ’70s.

“It’s a musical I’ve wanted to direct for 30 years,” Butts said.

The show marks Butts’ second play as director at Magnolia Arts Center, following a completely sold out run of “Hairspray” last summer. Butts said while the shows are very different, they still have some obvious similarities: both are funny and light-hearted while also driving home serious social issues.

“I’m a musical comedy guy. ... One just happens in Baltimore, the other just happens to take place in Georgia,” Butts said.

And while he may be a musical comedy guy, he is also a no-fluff guy. He’s drawn to plays that when the audience leaves, they can say, “Wow, this is what I got from that,” and hopefully leave with their jaw wide open — much like he did years ago.

“There are comedies that are just funny, sometimes people need that. But it’s much better when you have a social issue,” Butts said. “That’s what I look for in plays.”

Butts said in a time where voices of hatred and segregation seem louder than normal, this play seems especially important, and a way that he can say to those voices: “Your time has passed.”

“In the era that we seem to have gone back to, there’s a lot of division, there’s a lot of hatred popping up that we thought maybe had gone away,” Butts said. “It’s doing something to get things back to where they were.

“If I can do anything to make that happen — I can’t do a lot, I’m not a politician — but I have a small voice, and if I can make that happen, I will,” Butts said.

Butts said the play has some hard scenes, uncomfortable songs and real conversations, but that did not stop his cast from diving head-first into the script and helping him along the way.

“This is a primarily African American cast, and I’m not African American. I don’t fully understand, and my cast helped me get a little bit more insight. The actors helped me understand and helped me find what point of view I should be taking.”

The play features actors from all walks of life in Greenville, including staff from Pitt Community College and East Carolina University, medical doctors and more. 

“It’s a good play with a lot of good people. I hate to see it come to an end,” Butts said.

Leading up to opening night, Butts and his cast “could not be any more ready,” but said there are also always some preshow jitters. And if there were none, he’d be doing something wrong.

“If you’re not scared, you shouldn’t be putting on the show. You gotta be a little bit nervous. It keeps you on your toes.”

IF YOU GO

Magnolia Arts Center, 1703 E. 14th St., will present “Purlie” at 7:30 pm. today through Saturday and June 14-15. Matinee performances will be held at 2 p.m. June 9-10 and June 16. Tickets are $20 general admission and $15 for students/​seniors. Visit www.magnoliaartscenter.com or call 888-MAC-EVNT.

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