It’s hard to picture a better cast for this first Broadway revival of Ossie Davis’s 1961 broad, biting comedy about racism in the Old South. As the title character, Leslie Odom Jr., assuming the role originated by Davis himself, feels especially well-matched. Odom of course made his name on Broadway delivering with uncommon clarity the pithiest raps in “Hamilton,” as smooth-talking, untrustworthy but surprisingly sympathetic Aaron Burr. Similarly, as Purlie Victorious Judson, a newly-minted preacher, Odom must toggle between sounding like a comic mountebank (“I ain’t never in all my life told a lie I didn’t mean to make come true, some day!”) and like an impassioned civil rights advocate (“We want our cut of the Constitution, and we want it now: and not with no teaspoon, white folks – throw it at us with a shovel!”)
As deft as the acting is, the audience also winds up toggling – between the (sometimes outdated) comedy of the plot and the (often still timely) underlying outrage.
Purlie is returning back home to Cotchipee county, Georgia twenty years after the plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee took a bullwhip to his hide. He has brought along a starry-eyed country girl named Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, portrayed by Kara Young in another of the luminous performances that she has given over the last several years, including Tony nominated roles in “Clyde’s” and “Cost of Living.” Purlie needs Lutiebelle for a scheme, not quite a scam. His aunt Henrietta had been bequeathed $500 by a white lady for whom she worked as a cook. But Henrietta also died, so Purlie wants Lutiebelle to impersonate Henrietta’s daughter, Cousin Bee, in order to collect the money so that he can buy an old barn and turn it back into Big Bethel, an integrated church.
Complications ensue, which I suppose earn the play its new subtitle “A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cabbage Patch.” Director Kenny Leon offers a few moments of well-organized comic mayhem, but most of the humor is in the interaction among the characters. Each seem, at best, archetypes, although all but one turn out more complex than surface impressions.
The one exception is Jay O Sanders as the racist plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee, dressed all in white, favoring his bullwhip, and spouting harsh racist language. But even he generates a sophisticated laugh, when Noah Robbins, portraying the Cap’n’s meek more liberal son Charlie, tells him he sees nothing wrong with integrating the schools. This makes Cap’n apoplectic: “You trying to get non-violent with me, boy? “
Billy Eugene Jones as Gitlow Judson is a sly “Uncle Tom” telling the Ol’ Cap’n anything he wants to hear, sufficiently bamboozling the racist plantation owner so that he’s appointed “Deputy-For-The-Colored.” Vanessa Bell Calloway as Idella Landy is Charlie’s nanny, in effect his mother, and the only one who talks back to the Cap’n. Heather Alicia Simms plays the no-nonsense Missy Judson, fed up with both Gitlow and Purlie, but she also has a line of dialogue that clues us into part of what we’re meant to take away from the play: “Being colored can be a lotta fun when ain’t nobody looking.”
Two years before they starred in “Purlie Victorious,” Ossie Davis and his wife Ruby Dee (the original Lutibelle) had performed on Broadway in Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play “A Raisin in the Sun.” Their commitment to civil rights is unquestioned; it’s no exaggeration to consider them heroes of the movement. But the idea of using a white-suited Southern bigot as foil was nothing new even in 1961 – there was just such a character, Senator Billboard Rawkins from the State of Missitucky, in the 1947 musical ‘Finian’s Rainbow.” Now, it’s hard to argue that the racism is more insidious and less blatant in 2023, given, you know, Proud Boys, George Floyd’s killing, Senator Tommy Tuberville, the Republican legislators in the State of Tennessee….etc. But having the racism in play expressed primarily by an old addled colonel dressed in a lily white suit make it feel more rooted to a specific era.
“Purlie Victorious” ends with a moment of cruel humor followed by an expansive moment of kindness – when scenic designer Derek McLane shows what he’s got by expanding the set cleverly into a church, and Odom struts his stuff, the tongue-tying words juxtaposing the comic and the committed:
“Let us, therefore, stifle the rifle of conflict, shatter the scatter of discord, smuggle the struggle, tickle the pickle, and grapple the apple of peace…”
“Now, may the Constitution of the United States go with you; the Declaration of Independence stand by you; the Bill of Rights protect you; and the State Commission Against Discrimination keep the eyes of the law upon you, henceforth, now and forever. Amen.”
Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cabbage Patch
Music Box Theater
Running time: One hour 45 minutes with no intermission
Written 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, hair wig and makedup design by J. Jared Janas, original music by Guy Davis
Cast:Leslie Odom, Jr. as Purlie Victorious Judson, Vanessa Bell Calloway as Idella Landy, Billy Eugene Jones as Gitlow Judson, Noah Pyzik as Deputy, Noah Robbins as Charlie Cotchipee, Jay O. Sanders as Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, Heather Alicia Simms as Missy Judson, Bill Timoney as Sheriff and Kara Young as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins
Photographs by Marc J. Franklin