By: Samuel L. Leiter
September 29, 2023: Shout hallelujah! Purlie Victorious: a Non-Confederate Romp through the Cotton Patch, Ossie Davis’s stingingly funny 1961 satire about Black life in Jim Crow Georgia, is having its first (far too long belated) Broadway revival; like its title, it’s victorious. Overshadowed by Purlie, its even more successful musical comedy version of 1970, it has nonetheless often been seen in regional and amateur productions over the years. In fact, Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High School did it in the early 70s with young Jimmy Smits playing, of all people, the bigoted plantation owner, Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee! Delightfully, no matter how much time has passed, its satire of Southern racism is as pungent as ever.
The period from the 1920s through the 1950s witnessed slow and steady progress in the growth and development of nonmusical Black theatre in America, especially when it came to plays by Black playwrights for a racially diverse, commercial audience. As Martin Duberman’s biography of him demonstrates, Paul Robeson, the most famous Black actor of the 1920s and 1930s, despite searching for socially significant, critically viable dramas by writers of his race, made his mark in plays by whites, especially Eugene O’Neill, not to mention Shakespeare (Othello). He even costarred with well-known whites playing Blacks in blackface. Despite the appearance of a number of noteworthy names and promising works, it wasn’t until Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun that a Black playwright created a commercially successful play that was also acknowledged as a work of artistic genius. Among the best of the works soon following in her wake was Davis’s Purlie Victorious, costarringhim and his famously talented wife, Ruby Dee.
Davis and Dee’s roles are now in the brilliant hands of Leslie Odom, Jr. (Hamilton) and Kara Young (twice a Tony nominee, Clyde’s and Cost of Living), he as Purlie Victorious Justice, a charismatic traveling preacher, she a naïve outsider named Lutiebelle Gussie May Jenkins. Lutiebelle has been recruited to help Purlie carry out a swindle on the egregiously racist, anti-integrationist Cap’n (a white-wigged and bearded Jay O. Sanders, The Apple Plays) on whose cotton plantation the action occurs. Purlie has returned to the environs of his youth to trick the Cap’n out of $500 with which he plans to rebuild the Big Bethel Church to satisfy his people’s spiritual needs. He also hopes to free the plantation workers from the Cap’n’s rapacious grasp, so reminiscent of an ante-bellum slave owner’s. The Cap’n’s most beloved accoutrement is a bullwhip, which he’s not been shy about using on his employees, including Purlie years ago.
Purlie’s plan is to have Lutiebelle pass herself off as his late cousin Bee, whom she presumably resembles (regardless, to the Cap’n, all Black women look alike); the money was due Bee as an inheritance. Participating in the scam are Purlie’s allegedly Uncle Tom-ish brother, Gitlow Judson (Billy Eugene Jones), the best cotton picker on the plantation, always ready to placate the Cap’n with a “You the boss, boss” response; his wife, Missy (Heather Alicia Simms); and the Cap’n’s chief cook and bottle washer, Idella Landy (Vanessa Bell Calloway), revered by the Cap’n’s liberal son, Charlie (Noah Robbins), whose childhood nurse she was. A couple of dumbfounded cracker cops (Bill Timoney and Noah Pyzik), who support the Cap’n, round out the cast.
Just as the scheme is about to succeed, the thoughtless Lutiebelle makes a silly error and all hell breaks loose, threatening Purlie’s plans. However, following Charlie’s intervention and the Cap’n’s absurdly fortuitous fate, the play concludes with a rousingly uplifting gathering in the new church.
On its surface, Purlie Victorious—especially as dynamically staged by the inventive Kenny Leon—is a broad farce having good-natured fun at how effectively the Blacks, with their thick-as-molasses Southern accents and spirited joie de vivre, put one over on their unabashedly prejudiced white boss, playing off his chauvinistic proclivities with a wink while simultaneously undermining his authority. In 1961, Davis later recalled, many in the African American community objected to his use of humor as a way of confronting the racial divide, but he ultimately disagreed, for which we can be grateful. The actors, often speaking at breakneck speed, exaggerate their roles’ comical characteristics but always share an understanding with the audience that everyone’s complicit in the fun. Interestingly, aside from the play’s being compressed from three to two acts, the original dialogue has remained intact; it sounds as fresh as if it were new.
Meanwhile, Davis expresses a powerfully inspirational message to his race summed up in Purlie’s closing oration, where his words include: “I find, in being black, a thing of beauty: a joy; a strength; a secret cup of gladness; a native land in neither time nor place – a native land in every Negro face! Be loyal to yourselves: your skin; your hair; your lips, your southern speech, your laughing kindness—are Negro kingdoms, vast as any other! Accept in full the sweetness of your blackness – not wishing to be red, nor white, nor yellow: nor any other race, or face, but this.”
As Purlie, Odom’s physical and vocal energy never flag; he commands the stage with spunky humor, intense determination, insistent charm, and verbal eloquence. Young, a petite firecracker with exceptionally funny chops, distorts her voice and body into surprisingly expressive formulations. Her rubber legged awkwardness when forced to wear heels, is matched by the comedy she extracts by givimg certain words, like “obliged,” unexpected emphases. Sanders, a master of restrained and discreetly realistic acting, lets the stops out in his indelible, larger-than-life take on the Cap’n; Robbins, built like an exclamation mark, is nerdily perfect as Charlie (originally played by Alan Alda!); and Jones, Simms, and Calloway bring lovable warmth, humanity, and laughter to their respective roles. Timoney and Pyzik offer appropriate support as the local gendarmerie.
Topping it all off are the excellent period costumes of Emilio Sosa, the spot-on lighting of Adam Honoré, the expert sound design of Peter Fitzgerald, and the superb scenic design of Derek McClane. He’s created a barnlike structure allowing light to come in through the planks in the orange crate-like walls, with sliding units that smoothly transform the home of the workers into the Cap’n’s kitchen. And that shift is itself outdone for the final scene when rafters magically rise from the walls to form a roof over Big Bethel Church.
Purlie Victorious, running a swift and intermissionless 100 minutes, is theatre for everyone: truly funny, socially meaningful, historically educational, politically progressive, appealingly accessible, emotionally inspiring, and marvelously performed. One hopes it’s still remembered when Tony time comes around.
Music Box Theatre
239 W. 45th Street, NYC
Through January 7, 2024
Photography: Marc J. Franklin