by Rita Charleston
Robert Anu is many things to many people. He’s an actor, producer, production manager, teacher and much more. In fact, right now he’s wearing his director’s hat and bringing us “Purlie Victorious” at Allens Lane Theater, Allens Lane and McCallum Street in West Mt. Airy. The play runs on three consecutive weekends — Sept 27, 28, 29; Oct. 4, 5, 6, 11, 12.
Written by Ossie Davis, a man Anu says “viewed himself more as an author and activist rather than an actor,” the play takes place during the Civil Rights era. Purlie V. Judson is a man on a mission to retrieve the rightful legacy of a dead relative from the conniving clutches of Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, a dyed-in-the-wool segregationist and plantation owner. With the help of others, Purlie conspires to hoodwink Ol’ Cap’n in order to reclaim his ancestral church and re-establish it as Georgia’s first integrated house of worship.
“I remember that era very well,” Anu says. “I was the youngest of five Negro boys to integrate a private school on the Main Line in 1964. So the idea of segregation was one I grew up with and certainly was very aware of.”
Not so the lead actors he’s now working with who are mainly in their 30s. “At times it can be difficult directing young actors who don’t know the time period. But culturally there’s something in our race, our genetic history that makes us all aware that the U.S. has many divisions,” Anu insists.
To overcome the obvious challenge of dealing with actors who weren’t even born yet, Anu shows them documentary materials and shares much of the background of the time with them, attempting to get them to realize and therefore be able to re-live the emotion of the time.
Anu admits directing may be one of the most enjoyable hats he wears. “While I do like it all, right now I would say I really like directing and having the ability to shape the performances. Although it really is a very collaborative effort with all the other people involved in the production — set designers, lighting and costume designers and so on — I do enjoy the vision I have for the play and then seeing it all come to fruition.”
Anu, 60, who listed his ambition as scientist when he was in grammar school, developed his passion for the theater while a student at Haverford College, when he co-founded a black drama group with a student from Bryn Mawr College. (He also earned a law degree from Cornell University and studied at Villanova University Graduate Theater School.) Among the many things he’s done over the years is act with the National Shakespeare Company, Wilma Theatre, Arden Theater, Black Theater Festival and others. He’s directed and produced at many venues and also teaches are various universities and theaters around the city.
“This is the eighth production I’ve directed over the years at Allens Lane, and it’s very satisfying,” Anu says. “And as a director, I would say casting is a very, very important component of what I do. In fact, I would say casting is maybe 95 percent of it. Sometimes the process is done in collaboration with others, but ultimately the director makes the ultimate decision. And if you get the right cast, you get a great show.”
And once having assembled that cast, Anu says his primary responsibility is to encourage his actors to give portrayals that are not only instinctual and intuitive but also emotional and expressive. “We use the text to allow the actors to explore a wide range of the characters they are portraying. But while doing that, they’ve also examining their own lives. That’s where my best work is, even as I get the most powerful portrayals from the actors. Once I do that, all the rest just falls into place. And, hopefully, that’s when we create magic.”
Friday and Saturday night performances for “Purlie Victorious” begin at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices vary. For more information, call 215-248-0646.
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