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Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 27, 2023

Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch by Ossie Davis. Directed by Kenny Leon. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting design by Adam Honoré. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald. Wig, hair, and makeup design by J. Jared Janas. Fight director Thomas Schall. Original music by Guy Davis. Associate director Ioana Alfonso
Cast: Leslie Odom, Jr., Kara Young, Heather Alicia Simms, Billy Eugene Jones, Noah Robbins, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Jay O. Sanders, Bill Timoney, and Noah Pyzik.
Theater: Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Jay O. Sanders, Billy Eugene Jones, Kara Young,
and Leslie Odom, Jr.

Photo by Marc J. Franklin
Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, Ossie Davis's 1961 satirical play about Jim Crow racism, opens tonight at the Music Box Theatre in a long-overdue first-ever Broadway revival. The production, under the discerning direction of Kenny Leon, is an outstanding one, with uniformly splendid performances by the entire cast. And six decades in, the play itself remains sharp, funny, astute, and, unfortunately, utterly timely.

If you are familiar with the later 1970 musical adaptation, Purlie, which ran for close to 700 performances on Broadway, nearly three times as long as the original production of the play, you'll recognize the characters and the plot. It relates the tale of one Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom, Jr, giving a rip-roaring performance), a self-anointed itinerant preacher who has returned home to rural Georgia with the aim of buying and revitalizing the community church, Big Bethel. Of course, in order to do so, he has to find the money it will take to do the job. Not so easy when all of his friends and family are living from hand to mouth, in debt up to their eyebrows to Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders) on whose cotton plantation they toil, the nearly 60-year aftermath of the Civil War being little more than a distant rumor to Ol' Cap'n and his ilk.

Still, leave it to Reverend Purlie to have a scheme under his hat. He has brought with him a young woman named Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young, a sublime comic actress with the most expressive eyes you're likely ever to see), whom he intends to pass off as his late Cousin Bee, the heir to $500 that Ol' Cap'n is holding on her behalf. That Lutiebelle bears scant resemblance to Cousin Bee is of little concern to the confident Purlie. "What's the difference?," he asks. "White folks can't tell one of us from another."

Much of the laughter-inducing side to Purlie Victorious, which Kenny Leon directs with rapid-fire slapstick and farcical timing, is tied to the ups and downs of Purlie's venture. In perfect tune with this aspect of the production is Billy Eugene Jones's portrayal of Purlie's brother Gitlow. It is Gitlow who, while seeming to play Uncle Tom toady to Ol' Cap'n, manages to slyly undercut the plantation owner, a man who views himself as a benign savior of his farmhands, notwithstanding the threatening bullwhip and barking hounds he keeps handy.

Noah Robbins and Vanessa Bell Calloway
Photo by Noah Robbins
That bullwhip and the periodic appearances of the Sheriff (Bill Timoney) and Deputy (Noah Pyzik), seemingly at Ol' Cap'n's beck and call, make it clear that underneath the lightweight tone there is a serious side to this story. To this end, Ossie Davis has given to Purlie some fiery speeches about the scourge of virulent racism, invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King whose very name makes Ol' Cap'n cringe.

Apart from the lead performers, the production is blessed with the presence of three other gifted cast members. Heather Alicia Simms is Purlie's sister-in-law Missy. Vanessa Bell Calloway is Idella Landy, housekeeper and cook for Ol' Cap'n and surrogate mother to his son Charlie (an empathetic Noah Robbins), in whom she has instilled a deep understanding of the world he is set to inherit. Scenic designer Derek McLane has created a flexible, mobile set made up of thin wood lath walls, in keeping with Missy's description of the family's homestead on the plantation as a place where "you can get as much September inside as you can outside."

Not much of a spoiler to say that the lead character, whose name, after all, is Purlie Victorious, lives up to his name in the end. But even while playing around with exaggerated stereotyping to accentuate the satirical comedy, it is clear that Ossie Davis, writing in the midst of the American Civil Rights Movement, strove mightily to achieve a balance between the ludicrous and a powerful message of equality and the potential for a better world. Everyone involved in this production has been able to articulate this balance to a high degree, so that we leave the theater on a decidedly positive and hopeful note, even if the hard work to bring that hope to fruition never ends.