Claude Purdy in 2002

Stormi Greener, Star Tribune

Claude Purdy gave August Wilson his break in St. Paul

  • Article by: ROHAN PRESTON
  • Star Tribune
  • July 28, 2009 - 11:07 PM

Claude Purdy, the raspy-voiced director and Penumbra Theatre co-founder who was instrumental in the career of August Wilson, died Monday near Washington, D.C. He was 69.

"It was very unexpected," his wife, Jacqui Shoholm Purdy, said Tuesday. "He was having trouble breathing and it just escalated very quickly from pneumonia to congestive heart failure." He died at Inova Alexandria Hospital in Virginia, she said.

"Claude was a fantastic director with a deep well of understanding of black culture, aesthetics and spirituality," said veteran Penumbra actor James Craven, who worked with Purdy over the past three decades. "He knew every texture, thread and fabric of the culture, and he was able to put that onstage, light it and enlighten us. People talk about Lloyd Richards and other great directors. I would put Claude at the head of that pantheon."

A Lake Charles, La., native, Purdy directed in Europe and Africa, then settled in Pittsburgh in the 1960s. There he met Wilson, a fiery young poet and director who co-founded Black Horizon Theater.

Purdy came to the Twin Cities in 1975 to direct a show, "The Great White Hope," and stayed.

Purdy directed the first play by a new theater in St. Paul called Penumbra. That production of Steve Carter's "Eden" featured Penumbra artistic director Lou Bellamy, noted director Marion McClinton and Faye Price, now co-artistic producing director at Pillsbury House Theatre.

"He had a great sense of pacing and a cinematic eye," said Price, who was the dramaturge on the 1997 Penumbra production of Wilson's "Fences" at the Guthrie Theater, directed by Purdy. "I learned muscle memory from him. Even now, I don't mind doing something over and over again until it has become a part of my body."

Brought Wilson to St. Paul

Purdy urged Wilson to turn his poems about black heroes of the Old West into a play and to move to the Twin Cities to work on it. Purdy bought Wilson a plane ticket. "Black Bart and the Sacred Hills" became Wilson's first professional production when Purdy staged it at Penumbra in 1981.

As Wilson's reputation as a playwright soared, Purdy became an expert interpreter of his dramas, directing them in Houston, San Francisco and London.

His last show at Penumbra was "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," in 2002.

"These plays and their ideas are so large ... they can be done 100 years from now," Purdy told the Star Tribune in 1990. "You are always finding something new in them."

"He had a very visual approach to the stage, like a painter with a canvas," said actor-director Abdul Salaam El Razzac, who acted in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and other shows under Purdy. He credits the director with being the biggest influence on his career. "He could see figures coming to life, and he did it brilliantly."

Purdy directed for the New Federal Theatre in New York. "Don't forget that Claude did the classical repertory, from Tennessee Williams on, and he did it in a way that was excellent," said Woodie King, founder of New Federal. "He might be best known for his excellent interpretations of August Wilson, but his contribution surpasses that."

Claude Edison Purdy's mother was a teacher and his father a laborer. He studied acting at Southern University.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a sister, Jackie Purdy, of Los Angeles, and two sons.

Lou Bellamy's daughter Sarah, who grew up watching Purdy direct at Penumbra, said that "his legacy saturates the brick and mortar of Penumbra Theatre Company and beats in the hearts of those he leaves behind. How fleeting, life. The tallest trees taken by the wind."

Memorial services are pending.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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