Now playing a limited engagement at the Music Box Theatre, the first-ever Broadway revival of actor, director, activist, and writer Ossie Davis’s Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, which made its debut in 1961, will make you wonder why it took 62 years to return. Clearly, the time is right for this hilarious and potent comedy about the joys of being Black, the ongoing history of racial injustice, white supremacy, and horrific cruelty that didn’t end with the Civil War, and the urgent need for love, kindness, and change.
Set in the recent past on a plantation of the Old South, the 100-minute three-act intermission-less show opens with the actors entering the stage in their current clothes, then donning the costumes and assuming the roles of the earlier era, to underscore the Black legacy and the confluence of then and now. Directed with rapid-fire energy and non-stop zingers by Kenny Leon, the impeccable cast of nine – led by Leslie Odom Jr., who also makes his well-chosen return to Broadway for the first time since his Tony-winning performance in Hamilton – delivers all the laugh-out-loud satirical humor, pressing social issues, and uplifting human sentiments about pride, respect, and integration without missing a beat or ceasing to remind us of the absurdity and brutality of racism.
The narrative follows the story of the eponymous Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson, a traveling preacher who has returned to his childhood home in Georgia to claim his late Aunt Henrietta’s $500 inheritance, now in the possession of Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee – the oppressive confederacy-loving whip-wielding owner of the plantation where his family lives and works. Once he has collected the money, he will then purchase, restore, and integrate the community Church of Big Bethel, in which his grandfather served as minister. But Henrietta’s daughter and rightful heir – Purlie’s cousin Bee – is also deceased, so Purlie has concocted a plan to bring in the out-of-state kitchen maid Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins to assume her identity (since “white folks can’t tell one of us from another”) and persuade Cotchipee to release the $500 to her. It’s an idea that doesn’t go as smoothly as he had hoped it would and hilarity ensues, along with confrontations, lies, defiance, a zany chase scene, and doing the right thing to create a more promising future.
Odom fully embraces and embodies the charismatic and devoted character of Purlie, never hesitating to make his dissatisfaction with the plantation known, launching into fiery sermons and weaving electrifying parables (noting, “I ain’t never in all my life told a lie I didn’t mean to make come true, some day!”), both in and out of church, in a flawless old southern patois (also effectively assumed by the rest of the cast), that express his mission to bring an end to segregation, to emancipate the plantation workers (and everyone else) from hateful domination, and “to make Civil Rights out of civil wrongs.” It’s a stellar performance that should garner the star many more awards this season.
Playing opposite him, initially as his unsure accomplice, and soon as his lovestruck prospective wife, is the sensational Kara Young as Lutiebelle, who nervously attempts to impersonate the college-educated Bee, uproariously differentiating the speech patterns and demeanors of the two, forgetting the facts she rehearsed with Purlie, and absolutely nailing the physical and vocal comedy with her exaggerated moves and emphatic pronunciations. She also exhibits the development of her character, from a panic-stricken young domestic who attempts to sneak away from Purlie to a more empowered and supportive woman inspired by his liberating words, actions, and ethics.
In the unlikable role of Purlie’s main antagonist Cotchipee, Jay O. Sanders is equal parts ridiculous and despicable – a blustering, bullying, and threatening racist throwback to the antebellum South, who demands obeisance from his workers and his own seemingly timid and nerdy, but much more fair-minded and progressive son Charlie, well-played by Noah Robbins, who was raised with love by his caring and concerned Black nursemaid Idella Landy, as beautifully captured by Vanessa Bell Calloway.
Heather Alicia Simms appears as Purlie’s amiable sister Missy, the hard-working matriarch of the family, who takes an immediate liking to Lutiebelle, expresses her wish for them to marry, and, though ultimately accepting of his plan to recover the $500 inheritance and the church, is quick to point out some of the problems with it. And Billy Eugene Jones makes for a wily Gitlow Judson, Purlie’s razor-sharp brother and Missy’s spouse, who disingenuously plays an obedient and subservient Uncle Tom stereotype to Cotchipee’s face, to evade his wrath and to gain his confidence as his chosen “Deputy for the Colored.” But his crafty winks and facial expressions reveal the character’s true intent when “the Boss” isn’t looking, as does his closing scene with a raised folding chair, which bespeaks his true feelings and ties them to the present, as seen in this summer’s real-life Montgomery Riverfront Brawl and subsequent protests.
Rounding out the superb company are Bill Timoney and Noah Pyzik as the white Sheriff and Deputy, who trigger a madcap chase (fight direction by Thomas Schall) and make a surprising arrest in the inheritance scam. The top-notch writing, acting, and direction are supported by an authentic artistic design, with period-style costumes by Emilio Sosa and hair, wigs, and make-up by J. Jared Janas (including Cotchipee’s parodic Colonel Sanders look) and a set by Derek McLane comprised of high raw wood interiors with simple furnishings that transition fluidly from the Judsons’ home to the Ol’ Cap’n’s well-stocked kitchen to the Big Bethel Church, enhanced with lighting by Adam Honoré, sound by Peter Fitzgerald, and original music by Guy Davis.
The funny, rousing, and timely revival of Purlie Victorious represents the very best of Broadway, both in its entertainment value and in the importance of its themes to our history and society. It’s a brilliant and impactful show that was well worth the wait of 62 years, so be sure to get your tickets to this must-see production while you can, before its limited run comes to an end.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.