Long before Slave Play, decades before Ain’t No Mo, there was Purlie Victorious, the Ossie Davis comedy masterwork that, like those descendant plays, fused broad comedy, satirical minstrelsy, racial satire and still-relevant social commentary to create a play that is so encompassing in its views of history and legacy, so generous in its humanity and pinpoint sharp in its take on debts long owed and now demanded that Kenny Leon’s revival, opening tonight on Broadway, feels as current and bracing as a folding chair.
More about that folding chair later.
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Starring a magnificent Leslie Odom, Jr., in the title role, and featuring equally fine performances by an enchanting Kara Young, Billy Eugene Jones, Vanessa Bell Calloway and more, Purlie Victorious – full title (and one of the few signifiers of its 1961-era creation): Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch – has been given an urgent – and, oh yes, very, very funny – revival by Leon and his top-notch creative team.
The first Broadway revival of Davis’ 1961 cause celebre play – the playwright took the lead role, with the magnificent Ruby Dee co-starring and Dr. Martin Luther King in attendance for its 100th performance – the new Purlie, despite a few signs of age here and there, seems, near-miraculously, as contemporary and vital as the latest news cycle. Given the play’s subject matter, such a pronouncement might seem spritually deflating, but Davis’ tale, and Leon’s vital approach, offer nothing if not tireless hope.
Set in the 1950s on a still operating (thanks to Jim Crow laws and the cruelties of sharecropping) Southern cotton plantation , so much of Purlie, not least Emilio Sosa’s evocative costume design) hints at a deeper past. Purlie Victorious, playing out on Derek McLane’s gorgeous and versatile wood-slat set and under Adam Honoré’s lovely autumnal lighting design, tells a tale somewhere between tall and life-size, as a traveling preacher – Purlie, played by a vivacious Odom – returns to his Georgia home – a shack on that plantation that looks as much 1850s as 1950s – intent on claiming what rightfully belongs to his family: a $500 inheritance held tight by the plantation owner Cap’n Cotchipee (a by turns hilarious and snake-mean Jay O. Sanders, all done up in Colonel Sanders drag).
To get the money and fulfill his dream of buying back his community’s old church with plans to transform it from its current use as a barn and into the town’s first racially integrated place of worship, Purlie has concocted a scheme that could only come from a mind well-versed in theatrical farce (that would be the mind of Ossie Davis). During his travels, Purlie has come across a young woman (Young) who looks enough like his long-missing cousin – the rightful legal heir to that money – that she’ll do just fine in tricking old Cap’n into handing over the loot. Seems Cap’n isn’t exactly expert in telling one of his Black workers from another.
As overtly stated in the play’s full title, the scheme is indeed a “romp,” giving space to broad comic shenanigans expertly executed by a game cast, first and foremost Young, whose fresh-out-of-someone-else’s-kitchen Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins must transform herself into a passable version of the missing Cousin Bea, who, at least in everyone’s memory, was an elegant, educated and sophisticated woman about town.
Young all but steals the show in her transformation scenes, learning to walk in very high heels, cosseted into a Saturday go-to-town dress, and rattling off just-learned details and words as if she was to the Big House born. This is classic broad, screwball comedy, sharpened by Ossie Davis into razor satire and played to perfection by Young, whose previous quite good Broadway turns in Clyde’s and The Cost of Living couldn’t prepare audiences for the master class in physical comedy she delivers in Purlie. With her cat’s purr of a voice, she’s pure joy.
While Odom and Young have the most attention-getting roles, the rest of the cast is no less impressive. Heather Alicia Simms, as Purlie’s sister-in-law and accomplice in the plot to win back the $500 inheritance, is a delight, forceful and funny in equal measure, while Sanders keeps us guessing as to whether ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee is gullible or just very sneaky. Noah Robbins, as the Cap’n’s liberal-minded son, and Vanessa Bell Calloway as the Black servant who lovingly raised him don’t strike a false note, even as young master Cotchipee veers dangerously close to white savior territory.
Perhaps none of the actors have a tougher job than Billy Eugene Jones, Purlie’s brother who plays the Uncle Tom when Cap’n is present but the wise guy for his own kin. Jones has to let the audience know that his Gitlow Judson is in on the ruse, code switching on a dime without so much as a tiny stumble. Jones does it with somethine like grace, and, though it barely needs mentioning, an actor’s grand skills. There is no cringe in his obsequiousness, only survival and wile. Like Young, he’s a master comic, which makes his late-in-the-play wink to the audience so brilliant- yes, he’s the one who holds up a folding chair while none of the other characters are watching, a marvelous little actor-to-audience stage moment that signals Gitlow’s true spirit and is just one of the production’s details that places Purlie Victorious squarely within contemporary discourse.
As for Odom, he’s no less splendid here than he was in his career-making performance in Hamilton, generously allowing his castmates to take the spotlight when called for and grabbing it back when necessary. An example of the latter is Purlie’s raise-the-rafters sermon near the play’s conclusion, as rousing a performance as can currently be seen on any Broadway stage. This tale of equity, debts owed and reparations demanded, is a clarion call made loud and clear by Purlie and everyone on the Music Box stage, none more so than the late, great Ossie Davis himself.
Title: Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch
Venue: Broadway’s Music Box Theatre
Director: Kenny Leon
Written By: Ossie Davis
Cast: Leslie Odom, Jr., Vanessa Bell Calloway, Billy Eugene Jones, Noah Pyzik, Noah Robbins, Jay O. Sanders, Heather Alicia Simms, Bill Timoney and Kara Young.
Running time: 1 hr 40 min (no intermission)
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