Lester Purry is an actor’s actor: a leading-man type with character-actor instincts, a prodigious talent with an impeccable work ethic, an artist who delves deeply into the text and then hits his spot and simply tells the truth. He has exceptional charisma, power, emotional availability, and a rich, mellifluous voice.
At this point in Purry’s life he’s about as accomplished a regional theater actor as you’re going to find, having worked at theaters as prominent and diverse as the Guthrie, South Coast Rep, Alabama Shakespeare Festival and one of the most famous Black theaters in the country, Penumbra, of which he is a member. And now, he’s appearing through Dec. 30 in Portland Playhouse’s annual cash cow A Christmas Carol, as one of the touchstone characters of 19th, 20th and 21st century Western culture, Ebenezer Scrooge.
Five years ago Portland Playhouse first brought Purry in to play Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences. Fences was directed by Purry’s longtime friend Lou Bellamy, artistic director of Penumbra and an Obie Award winner. It was an electrifying performance in an award-winning show, a show I was lucky enough to be in.
Purry was an honor and a joy to work with. An honor, because he’s one of the most generous, talented, and hard-working actors I’ve ever shared the stage with. A joy, because he’s just a good man: warm, inviting, quick to laugh, and for an actor of his caliber, refreshingly down to earth. I feel lucky to call him my friend.
Fences initiated an artistic love affair between the Playhouse and Purry. He’s now returned a few times, to play famed Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 2022 in George Steven Jr.’s Thurgood, (also directed by Bellamy), the male lead in Pearl Cleage’s What I Learned In Paris? early this year, and now, Scrooge.
Purry comes from the small town of Pickens, South Carolina, population 3,300, and like a lot of actors, he first got into acting in high school so he could meet girls. He had planned on going to college on a football scholarship but, he admits, “I wasn’t as good as I thought I was.”
But theater led to a scholarship to a small liberal arts college, Mars Hill in North Carolina. Interestingly, even this good fortune did not guarantee Purry’s career in theater. It took a while for him to take acting, in particular, as a career path, and he tried to walk away from it several times.
In spite of his scholarship he tried to walk on the Mars Hill football team. “I was 148 pounds,” he says, laughing. “I walked into the locker room and saw them big dudes they had in there, turned right around and walked back out.”
Then, he thought he might be a techie working in the scene shop. It was the shop head — Dr. Virgil R. Gray, who was also a theatrer arts instructor — who kindly but firmly gave Purry the impetus to pursue his true calling. “In the shop they’d play all the old musicals, Golden Boy, Chicago, Little Shop, Sweeney Todd, and I was just singing along and [Dr. Gray] came to me and said, ‘You gotta stop working in this shop. You can still work here. But you gotta start auditioning.’
Purry did, and wound up performing in seventeen shows at Mars Hill. He then applied himself to being a professional actor, eventually moving to Minneapolis/St. Paul and, after three years of trying, finally landing the role of Cory in Fences at Penumbra. He’s been a staple with that theater company ever since.
Purry’s initial goal with theater — to meet girls — eventually bore long-lasting fruit. Alabama Shakes is where he met his future wife, Toni, who was the audience development coordinator.
“God spoke to me,” he says today, ‘and said, ‘This is your wife.’” Purry almost lost her altogether when, on their very first date, he told her he loved her and asked her to marry him. That pretty much ended that date. But weeks later, Purry persuaded her to join a dinner party he was hosting at his house, where he was able to convince her of his sincerity. Eleven days later, she told him she loved him. Ten months after that they were married. And twenty-six years later, the bond between the two is so real it’s almost tangible. When you meet her, Toni is as friendly and charismatic as Lester is. “If I had a fraction of what she’s got,” Purry says, “I’d never be out of work.”
It was Toni, naturally, who brought Purry’s acting career back from the brink one last time. They had moved to Los Angeles, and to help keep them afloat between gigs, Purry had taken a job in hotel security. The money and the benefits started getting hard-to-leave-good, even though internally, Purry was becoming more and more miserable.
“Finally,” he says, “Toni said to me, ‘Did you come to L.A. to do security or to be an actor?’ I said, ‘To be an actor.’ She said, ‘Well, you’re spending all your time in security.’ And I quit. And jobs started rolling in, man.”
When asked what keeps the fire burning, he says simply, “I don’t know what I’d be if it wasn’t for this. I’d have to be a really different person, and probably an unhappy one.” It’s a sentiment shared by most great artists. If they could do something else, they would, because when you give as much on stage as Lester Purry does, there is inevitably a price to pay.
“This stuff costs you something, man,” he says. “In order to sell it you got to go through it emotionally. That’s the cost. For me, if I don’t feel it, it doesn’t come off as authentic. It comes off as playing or playing at it – acting.”
How do you play a character like Ebenezer Scrooge with authenticity? Even though in his career Purry has played Troy Maxson, Oberon, Othello, King from King Hedley, Thurgood Marshall, and even Lancelot in Camelot, playing Scrooge gave him pause. Ebenezer Scrooge is a cultural icon. A Christmas Carol has been adapted, de-constructed, re-imagined and rebooted in just about every creative medium often many different times. There are at least a hundred film and television adaptations, and innumerable stage adaptations as well as comic books, ballets, operas and even video games.
“He’s a challenge because he’s an icon.” Purry says. “People already have a preconceived notion of who Scrooge is, how he speaks, how he stands, how he walks, how he moves in the world. I’m not interested in that. I wanna see how Scrooge moves through me. I think, as an artist, that that’s our best tool, who we are, how do we filter these characters through our own life experience. Me being Scrooge is different. I think we [he and director Charles Grant] have a different perspective of who this cat is that I think will relate more to today’s world.”
Grant concurs. When Playhouse Artistic Director Brian Weaver asked him if he wanted to take over Carol, Grant immediately thought of Purry, who he’d been a fan of since Fences. Grant was excited about the opportunity to work with a Scrooge who reflected his own life experience. “As a Black boy grown into a Black man,” says Grant, “anything I do is going to be Blackety-black.” So, in many ways Purry was the perfect vehicle for the Carol that Grant saw in the movie of his mind: “My vision of the script was built imagining Lester Purry in the role.”
Since its stellar inception in 2013, originally directed by Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s Cristi Miles, what’s separated the Portland Playhouse production of A Christmas Carol from other versions of the story (which abound in December) and other holiday fare, period, is its commitment to artistic excellence and ingenuity. It never shies away from the darkness at the heart of Dickens’ cultural tentpole; never caters to treacly sentiment typical of art centered on the holiday season; and still manages to give audiences the affirmation and wisdom they crave from Dickens’ classic tale, all while utilizing a dynamic theatrical vocabulary with which to tell its story.
Charles Grant had made a splash with his directing debut when he co-directed this year’s Great Wide Open for Portland Playhouse with Many Hats Productions’ artistic director and Portland theater badass Jessica Wallenfels (a show I was also in, and it was an extraordinary process to be a part of).
For his part, Purry was shocked by the offer. “I had no thought — no desire to play Scrooge. The first time I saw it — ever — was two years ago – at Portland Playhouse. I had never seen it before. He shrugs. “For what? You see video clips and whatnot, commercials. ‘Bah humbug.’ And you feel like you get it. He’s a bitter, sniveling old man.” According to Grant, he and Purry spoke on the phone three times before Purry said yes.
While Purry was somewhat intimidated by the extreme scale of the role, Charles Grant was somewhat intimidated by working with an actor of Purry’s caliber. “Oh yeah,” says Grant, “it was definitely intimidating. But knowing the person that [Purry] is, I knew I could trust him. We’re both collaborative people.” And he was confident that that trust would be the bond he and Purry would use to “create a version of A Christmas Carol that was distinctly our own.”
That faith has played out the way Grant had hoped it would. “A good rehearsal process is all about the people in the room,” Grant says. “Lester sets the tone with his leadership, how he moves, how he talks, jokes and creates space for his fellow actors. He’s continually striving to be better. He brings so much nuance to Scrooge. His continued investigation into the piece as though it’s a new work is creating something that is both haunting and moving. People that know him and don’t know him will be surprised.“
That nuance comes from Purry’s refusal to let Scrooge’s iconic status force him into a two-dimensional performance. “Forbes magazine did a calculation,” he says. “If Scrooge was a real person, how much money would he be worth? Eight billion dollars. I said, ‘Oh, this guy’s a billionaire. He moves in the world much differently than somebody who’s just rich and just stingy. He’s got power. He’s got influence. Is his lack of generosity because he’s afraid of being poor? Or is it because he loves amassing the power that comes with being a billionaire?”
When asked what are the similarities or differences between himself and Scrooge, he laughs. “That might be a better question for Toni.” But then he leans forward and his expression becomes more serious. “I hope the selfishness is different from me. I think the philosophy of money over people is different.”
The engine that drives Scrooge “comes from his being raised in poverty,” Purry thinks. “When you’re in a place of real poverty, where you don’t know if you’re going to eat, or you’re not eating, the next day or the next week, you’re scrounging for fuel, for fire to stay warm – when you start accumulating material wealth there can be a tendency to want to make sure that you never go back to what you experienced at all cost.”
It’s a hard lesson we’re being reminded of in 2023: Oppression does not engender enlightenment in the oppressed. “If you look at Scrooge’s character,” says Purry, “there’s this sentiment of, ‘Well, I did it. I pulled myself up from nothing. Why can’t you?’”
When asked what he hopes audiences will take away from this incarnation of A Christmas Carol, Purry says, “ I think the real message is to really look within yourself, no matter what you have in life, and see what you can do for others. The average person, I believe, doesn’t give because we can’t give hundreds or thousands. Sometimes, five dollars is enough.”