That jubilant sound you hear emanating from the Calderwood Pavilion is Boston’s fall theater season kicking into a higher gear, courtesy of Billy Porter’s outstanding world-premiere production of Dan McCabe’s “The Purists.’’
It seems like yesterday (it was 2011) that McCabe was introduced to Boston theatergoers as an actor, not a playwright, portraying the younger brother in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet.’’ It also seems like yesterday (it was 2015) that Porter, primarily known as the Tony-winning star of “Kinky Boots,’’ took the helm as director of George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum’’ at the Huntington (and later of Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Topdog/Underdog.’’)
Now McCabe and Porter have combined their talents for a Huntington production of “The Purists’’ that manages to be trenchant, topical, substantive, and consistently funny at the same time. That’s a tough balancing act to pull off, but “The Purists’’ does it with impressive finesse and no small amount of theatrical fire.
Race, gender, sexuality, ambition, craftsmanship, connoisseurship, cultural appropriation, generational conflict, the comparative virtues of hip-hop and musical theater, the depredations of the recording industry: All those forces collide at one point or another in McCabe’s play — and, crucially, all are embodied by vividly particularized and differentiated characters whom we come to care deeply about.
In certain respects, particularly its deployment of hip-hop performance as a proving ground and hip-hop life as a crucible of identity, “The Purists’’ recalls Idris Goodwin’s “Hype Man: a break beat play,’’ presented last year in Boston by Company One Theatre. As in “Hype Man,’’ the rap sequences in “The Purists,’’ including a rap battle between two young female performers that ignites collateral conflict, are electric.
Whatever their flaws, McCabe doesn’t shortchange any of the tempestuous figures who gather to bicker, banter, and connect on a stoop in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens, designed by Clint Ramos and brought to bursting life by Porter and his excellent cast. The playwright makes sure we see his characters whole. McCabe’s comprehensively humane portraits, enhanced by the pungently expressive performances Porter draws from his quintet of actors, deepen our emotional investment in the play and add power to the revelations, large and small, that eventually surface.
“The Purists’’ chiefly revolves around Lamont Born Cipher, an African-American rapper in his late 40s, played by the rivetingly intense Morocco Omari, who is determined to safeguard the integrity of an art form he sees as in danger of dilution from white dilettantes; Mr. Bugz, an avuncular hip-hop DJ, also in his late 40s, also black, movingly portrayed by J. Bernard Calloway, who carries the weight of sadness over his mother’s dementia and is also troubled by a personal secret that is about to spill into public view; Gerry Brinsler, a white, gay, acerbic musical-theater aficionado in his 60s, who makes no secret of his disdain for what he calls “rippity-rap,’’ played by John Scurti, whose comic timing and delivery could scarcely be better; and Val Kano, a twentysomething Puerto Rican rapper who is tired of encountering roadblocks to her career, portrayed by Analisa Velez with immense verve and personality.
Eventually, a fifth person arrives on the scene: Nancy Reinstein, a white employee of Gerry’s in her 20s who professes to revere Lamont and hip-hop generally, played by Izzie Steele with an artful blend of gee-whiz demeanor and a gimlet eye. For all the ferocity of their subsequent rap battle, both Nancy and Val are of like mind on the question of misogyny in rap lyrics, and they challenge the older men on it. That leads to a fiercely passionate treatise by Lamont that does not defend misogyny but explores distorted depictions of hip-hop culture and delves into the subject of what, at the end of the day, constitutes authenticity.
It’s one of numerous times “The Purists’’ harnesses cause and effect to generate heat — sometimes directly, as when Gerry is confronted by Mr. Bugz and Lamont over the language he uses to describe African-American teenagers on the subway; and sometimes indirectly, as when Val, her feelings hurt by Mr. Bugz’s unwillingness to commit to mentoring her, finds a way to weaponize a rumor about him in a conversation with Lamont.
The friendships, rivalries, and quasi-love affairs in “The Purists’’ are grounded in persuasive detail; McCabe’s larger points about, say, racial exploitation or gender inequities in the music business emerge organically from the canvas he has carefully populated and delineated rather than with a sudden, throat-clearing, momentum-breaking didacticism.
Again, all this is done without sacrificing the vein of humor that runs through the production. McCabe may have begun his theater career as an actor, but “The Purists’’ suggests that he’s a born playwright. And while Porter’s career as an actor is still going strong (on FX’s “Pose,’’ to name one), “The Purists’’ and his other two outings at the Huntington add up to evidence that he should never let too much time pass between directing stints.
Play by Dan McCabe. Directed by Billy Porter. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company in association with Big Beach. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Oct. 6. Tickets start at $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org