Consider him the Robin Hood of righteousness.
Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom, Jr.), star of the titular new Broadway revival Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp through the Cotton Patch (★★★★☆) is a complete con artist and long-winded orator. He’s got the best intentions. He even says so himself towards the end of this cleverly conceived play: “Believe me! I ain’t never in all my life told a lie I didn’t mean to make come true some day!”
It’s hard to argue with such logic. Besides, there is a world of difference between telling a lie in order to seek justice and freedom versus the cruelty and inhumanity of a single human lording ownership over another.
It’s not challenging, however, to praise Director Kenny Leon and his marvelous cast. The first-rate Broadway revival of this comedy since it originally ran in the early ’60s is something to behold.
Debonair, smooth-talking Purlie has returned to his small country town in Georgia with a single provident purpose in mind. “My intention is to buy Big Bethel back, to reclaim the ancient pulpit of Grandpaw Kincaid, and preach freedom in the cotton patch,” Purlie tells Missy (Heather Alicia Simms), his sister-in-law. He’ll have his church once he has $500 in hand.
Missy and her husband Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones) still live on the plantation once owned by a white woman who left the property to Purlie’s now-deceased Aunt Henrietta. It was then passed along to Cousin Bee, who is also dead.
Somewhere along the line, the property fell to Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders), a loatheful human being who believes that education for black people should consist of advanced cotton picking. Now Purlie is next in line to inherit the goods, if he can convince Cotchipee that Cousin Bee is, in fact, not dead.
He enlists the help of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young) a sweet, uneducated young lady, who could persuade Cotchipee that she is, in fact, Cousin Bee. Missy isn’t convinced. “Look at her head — it ain’t nearly as built like a rutabaga as Bee’s own was!” Purlie isn’t worried. “What’s the difference?” he says. “White folks can’t tell one of us from another by the head.”
Lines like this are frequent in Purlie Victorious and Leon keeps the action of this three-act play moving along at a quick clip. It also helps that nearly everything — and everyone — in this cast is finely attuned to one another and to the brilliant material, written by Ossie Davis.
Davis was the lead in the original production along with his wife, Ruby Dee. At the time, the show was groundbreaking considering that, when it premiered in 1961, America was at the height of the civil rights movement.
Names including Malcolm X, Jessie Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (who would attend a performance and be photographed with the cast) were prominent on the daily news.
Broadway and mainstream entertainment had yet to see a carefully crafted social satire that, in its own way, was a daring display of activism. Along with their acting careers, Davis and Dee were committed civil rights activists and tried to inject all of their work with roles that elevated the black experience.
Yet it’s too idealistic and flat-out wrong to look at Purlie Victorious as simply a historical piece. More than sixty years later, our country remains rife with racism, social injustice, and impunity. It’s not that Davis intended to make light of the topic of slavery. Much like Mel Brooks did when he danced on Hitler’s grave with The Producers, Davis’ story steps on everything that is wrong about racism and inequality.
Like all great satire, it is done in such a way that simultaneously enlightens, entertains, convicts, and brings hope. Rarely can themes like this be explored with hilarity and poignancy, but Leon has directed his cast with such clarity that they are. In less skilled hands, it would be easy for the show to derail as it lends itself to full-on farce. Yet Odom, Jr. is a master charmer and, like any slick evangelist, it’s impossible not to be converted by his philosophies.
This is truly the precious gift of storytelling and live theater. It has an undeniable ability to shift mindsets and perceptions — even among those who consider themselves part of the proverbial choir. Thanks to Derek McLane’s deceptively marvelous set, the heavens literally open before the curtain drops. It serves as a metaphor for grace and healing — not only for his fictitious characters in this small Georgia town but for the audience, both in 1961 and the present day.
Purlie Victorious plays through Jan. 7, 2024, at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. in New York City.
Tickets are $74 to $318. Visit www.purlievictorious.com.
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