Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, a play written by the late, prolific, and legendary actor/writer/director Ossie Davis, hasn’t been performed on Broadway since its original 1961-62 run. The material, about a preacher (also played by Davis) scheming to claim an inheritance and save his hometown church, hasn’t exactly lain dormant in the six decades since then; a film version called Gone Are the Days! (also starring Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee, in their original Broadway roles) came out in 1963, and a musical adaptation called Purlie began a longer run in 1970. It’s the musical, though, that seems to have more frequent revivals in other cities, moreso than the straight-play version. Was the misguided thinking around the original text that it was no longer necessary, either because of the musical’s popularity or the increasing distance from the Jim Crow south setting?
If that was ever the case, a new production of Purlie Victorious feels like a concise rebuke. Almost immediately, it asserts itself as a play that feels contemporary both in its clarity about lingering racism and its willingness to generate big laughs from that very clarity. Original-cast Hamilton standout Leslie Odom Jr plays Purlie Victorious Judson, who in desperation takes a con artist’s approach to a wholesome goal. Hoping to buy and revive his hometown church, Purlie hopes to claim a $500 inheritance that plantation owner “Cap’n” Cotchipee (Jay O Sanders) owes to his late cousin Bee, who has no next of kin. Purlie knows that Cotchipee – who keeps a number of local Black folks in his employ, in his debt, and under his thumb – won’t part with the money easily. So Purlie enlists the starry-eyed (and Purlie-besotted) Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young) to pose as Cousin Bee. After all, Cotchipee hasn’t seen Bee since she was young – and, more to the point, Purlie understands how interchangeable Black faces are to white people who still see them as lesser creatures, slaves in all but name.
What results, then, is a sort-of farce with genuine danger and tension lurking underneath the frantic deception. Purlie, Luttiebelle, Purlie’s brother Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones), and Gitlow’s wife Missy (Heather Alicia Simms) are allowed screwball foibles while also giving voice to Davis’s ideas about the joys and frustrations of not-quite-free Black life in America. “Being colored can be a lot of fun when there ain’t nobody looking,” Missy notes, and Gitlow, who works directly for Cotchipee, knows that better than anyone, contorting himself into boss-pleasing obsequiousness so often that it becomes as second-nature as his occasional, secretly barbed remarks that amount to wishing for the captain’s eventual demise.
The production, directed by Kenny Leon, never turns as grim as its undercurrents – or, for that matter, as its ruefully stated grievances. For one thing, it’s too fleet: the three-act original has been condensed into a 105-minute sprint sans intermission. Moreover, the cast is a joy to watch, seamlessly blending righteous passion and practical laughs, even as the play’s torrents of dialogue threaten to overwhelm them. Though Odom is the top-billed star attraction here, it takes Young all of about 30 seconds to start stealing scenes. She gives Luttiebelle a slightly cracked voice and, when she’s called upon to perform as a college-educated Cousin Bee, a teetering case of nerves; it adds up to a perfectly judged case of playing daft but not dumb. Davis’s script has funny lines for everyone, but it’s Young who earns the biggest guffaws from pure performance, like her pronunciation of “obliged” or her uneasiness in high heels.
If the play itself has any momentary unease, it has to do with Purlie. Not in Odom’s performance, by turns charming and fiercely emotional, but the writing and direction of the character, who must shoulder the burden of the play’s plot, character, and messaging all at once. Occasionally, it feels like too much for such a brief production to bear and leaving some conceptual questions hanging: is it Purlie’s faith that powers his fervor, or is part of him embracing the elaborate bluster of a con man in order to find some measure of revenge? Either take would be satisfying, but the show makes him a little too opaque for Odom to land on one, the other, or a mix. For that matter, Purlie Victorious isn’t quite character-focused enough to even ask the question directly.
If the idea was that Davis’s play has too much else on its mind to tease out more of a character study, well, fair enough. More than six decades of on-and-off progress has made the show more of a period piece than it was in 1961, but no less current in its portrait of white Americans enacting a kind of vicarious Confederacy, designed to keep Black America separate and unequal. That it’s still so relevant will provoke sad amazement; that it remains so funny and stirring is a smaller, better kind of miracle.