Thomas Bradshaw’s Purity follows two Columbia University professors as they debate Wuthering Heights v. Jane Eyre, snort prodigious amounts of cocaine, and screw each other’s hot wives. As a member of the Columbia faculty myself, I am deeply affronted and outraged! Who are these lecturers and why haven’t they invited me to their parties?
With plays such as Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist and Prophet, Bradshaw has fashioned himself an Off-Off-Broadway niche as a naughty provocateur, eager to illustrate our culture’s hypocrisies concerning race, faith, and sex. But Bradshaw paints with an excessively broad brush. Purity examines racism and self-hatred about as subtly as Juggs magazine explores the objectification of women. The drug habits and extramarital dalliances of tenured professors Dave (Daniel Manley), a white man, and Vernon (James Scruggs), a black one, are the least of their transgressions. Bradshaw waves them off on a booze-filled holiday to Ecuador, where they cheerfully rape a nine-year-old girl. He also depicts Vernon’s attempts to lynch a new hire, a professor of African-American literature who cites The Autobiography of Malcolm X as his favorite work.
Bradshaw and director Yehuda Duenyas excel at inciting visual and aural discomfort, aided by the fearless performances of the seven-member cast. (Scruggs offers a particularly unselfconscious performance.) The numerous sex scenes feature gobs of lube and a decided lack of undergarments (ah, verisimilitude!). And terms such as “jungle nigger” and “ass pussy” do not fall neutrally on the ears. But in this outing, writer and director leave our moral sense untroubled. While none of us is without prejudice or destructive desire, it’s doubtful that many in the P.S.122 audience secretly yearn to rape pre-teens or lynch colleagues merely because they sport dreadlocks. Depicting such extremes might make a spectator squirm, but actually it lets him or her off the hook. Vernon’s cry that “We need to lead a revolution against these kente-cloth niggers” or burn down Howard University lets us condemn him without ever turning that censure on ourselves.
Purity features a fantasy sequence in which Vernon rubs flour on his face and transforms into a white Southern plantation owner, a scene eerily echoed in You Belong to Me by Josh Fox and the International WOW Company, also running at P.S.122. Indeed, thematic and scenic resonances between the two works abound, though You Belong to Me positions itself as a far more self-serious work and boasts a three-hour running time (twice that of Purity‘s) to prove it.
Like Bradshaw, Josh Fox does not shy from grand, rather obvious themes. This three-part piece, itself the fifth installment in International WOW’s Death of Nations Project, makes the none too challenging argument that violence breeds violence, inhumanity leads to more of the same. Fox has the first part set on the last day of the Civil War, the second on the last day of WWII, and the third during the present conflict.
As in many of International WOW’s previous works, You Belong to Me ricochets among numerous genres and styles. An actor may first appear as a Confederate soldier, then as a tiger; first as a Southern belle, then a camp survivor. Fox’s work as a director has long garnered praise, but he has often seemed an auteur in search of an editor. He offers striking stage pictures and asks challenging questions, but they recede amid Fox’s desire to jam-pack every scene with as much imagery and theme as it can bear—perhaps more. History may repeat itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, but given enough iterations, it doesn’t mean much at all.