Aldersgate Church Community Theater presents Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious, a melodrama set on a southern cotton plantation in the 1960s. Eleanore Tapscott directs this subversive production, which takes one of America’s most serious topics, race relations, and presents it as a satiric soap opera. The talented cast works very well together, and the result is a truly unique and memorable night of theater.
Set designer Stacey Becker and constructors Leah and Shah Choudhury (assisted by Ken Brown) build the simple but impressive interior of a shabby but tidy cabin, with faded wooden walls and furniture, ragged drapes, and a sheath of carpet hanging where a door should be. With this being a dialogue-driven play, the set isn’t super important—this could have been presented in a bare black-box theater with the same effect—but it’s impressive nonetheless.
The technical element that I enjoyed the most was the costumes, designed by Farrell Ann Hartigan and Juliana Cofrancesco. It’s here that we get our first clue that this is a play that is ready to poke fun at itself (and the culture that inspired it), with my favorite example being the character of Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee. Ol’ Cap’n is an old, rich southern white man, and he looks as if Colonel Sanders himself walked onstage. The characters here are more caricatures, broad stereotypes that are exaggerated for comedic effect.
Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson (Jason Ellis) dreams of buying back the local church, and an inheritance left for his family would easily pay for it, but first he has to get the plantation colonel Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Steve Rosenthal) to hand over the funds. Cotchipee is a confederate to the core and behaves like a racist drill sergeant, so this is no easy task. Purlie convinces his new sweetheart, Lutibelle (a charming and eager performance by Aja Goode), to masquerade as a recently deceased cousin, whose claim would make a much stronger case. Of course, things go drastically awry, chaos ensues, and in a play where everything is already exaggerated, hilarity follows.
The actors all do a fine job with their characters. Ira F. Coats Jr. plays Gitlow Judson, the stereotypical “Uncle Tom” of the era, placating the Ol’ Cap’n and rushing to meet his every whim with a wide smile, and then sighing and rolling his eyes behind the old man’s back at every turn.
At my performance, Crystal Arful-Addoh was Purlie’s sister Missy Judson (a shared role), who is the epitome of a good southern woman: loud, proud, overly friendly, and eager to feed you. Bill Barnes plays young Charlie Cotchipee, the Ol’ Cap’n’s son. Progressive, open-minded, and pro-integration, he’s a decent white man…and a because of this, he’s also a major disappointment to his father. However, the most memorable performance is easily Purlie, with Ellis playing him with the hyper, almost frenetic energy of a passionate man who’s eager for immediate action and change.
Serious topics can be more easily broached when presented as satire, and Aldersgate achieves this with their production of Purlie Victorious. This is a great play to see with friends for the discussion value alone, and the performances are impressive all around. With only two more weeks left of shows, time is running out to share in a memorable experience.
Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Purlie Victorious plays through October 16, 2022 presented by Aldersgate Church Community Theater performing at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, 1301 Collingwood Road, Alexandria, VA. Tickets ($18 general; $15 for seniors and active-duty military) can be purchased online or at the door after the window for presales has closed.
COVID Safety: There is social distancing between rows and groups of two seats in each row. For your health and safety, we invite you to wear your mask while in the building. All cast and crew are fully vaccinated and boosted.
Written by Ossie Davis
Produced by Charles Dragonette and Marg Soroos
Directed by Eleanore Tapscott