All that’s missing from the spectacularly funny revival of Purlie Victorious is its playwright, actor and activist Ossie Davis, to cheer it on. A Broadway hit in 1961 (and a film in 1963, Gone Are the Days!, with the screen debuts of two of its returning castmembers, Alan Alda and Sorrell Booke) it had lapsed into obscurity, but interest in plays about the African-American experience then and now has returned it to the stage, in mint condition. In a rare preshow announcement performed live the director, Kenny Leon, mentioned that Davis, who also starred in the production, set out to write a tragedy based in part on his own experience of discrimination but wound up embracing the comedy of the material. And how; peerlessly acted by a cast of clowns there’s not a dull-witted moment in its 100 or so intermission-less minutes, with ample room for reflection and a happy tear at the end.
Subtitled “A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch” the show upends Michelle Obama’s famous political dictum by going high and low all at once. Indeed it flirts with minstrelsy at times, but to Leon’s credit no apparent attempt has been made to tame it. Davis’ aim is to show how a once-enslaved people, still obliged to observe the old social codes in the era of the automobile, and still marooned in segregation, can subvert the system by playing along, then strike back when the opportunity presents itself. For the ever-smiling, ever-hopeful Purlie (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a preacher who’s as much hustler as a man of faith, the prize is his family’s church, which has been absorbed into the holdings of Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders), whose attitudes about race would embarrass Robert E. Lee. Cotichipee also has in his possession a $500 inheritance left to Purlie’s aunt Bee; what Purlie no longer has is his rather famously sassy relation, who has passed away. Figuring that the leering old racist wouldn’t be able to tell one Black woman from another (“some of the best pretending in the world is done in front of white people”) Purlie has enlisted one Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young) to play Bee, and get the money that can then be used to buy back the property and form an integrated house of worship for changing times.
The con is on…but needless to say complications aside, from the seemingly timid Lutiebelle, his brother Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones), a skeptical, accommodating type, and Gitlow’s eminently practical wife Missy (Heather Alicia Simms). Cotchipee’s progressive-minded but somewhat weak-willed son Charlie (Noah Robbins) and housekeeper Idella (Vanessa Bell Calloway) assume greater importance as the show veers hilariously into Pygmalion territory, as Purlie tries to coach the hapless Lutiebelle into a good enough impersonation of Bee, and finds himself smitten despite his devil-may-care ways. While Lutiebelle has a name that Purlie denounces as “an insult to the Negro race” she has the cunning of a domestic worker who’s always been underestimated, and the show thrives on various reversals. (Some of them made literal by Derek McLane’s set, which largely functions as Purlie’s woebegone family home in Georgia then rotates and transforms into other environments, quite stunningly at the production’s end when joined with Adam Honoré’s beatific lighting.)
Perfectly clad by costume designer Emilio Sosa, Odom, Jr., a Tony winner for Hamilton, and Young seem born to their parts, generating the sweetest of music amidst the Front Page pacing of the screwball plot. Purlie’s belief in himself is sorely tested by the slovenly Cotchipee, and Sanders is an ideal foil, embodying the mingled awfulness and ridiculousnesss of racism with a chicken and biscuits accent and a mean twinkle in his eye. (He pulls off neat bits of slapstick, too.) Everyone has a moment to sparkle, and Davis’ beneficence carries over to Jones’ funnily fearful Gitlow, who nervously accedes to the cap’n’s whims, and Charlie, played by Robbins as a high-strung new hope for the South if he can just stand up for himself and link arms with Purlie’s rib-tickling insurgency. It’s a delight. A decade later the show was adapted into the successful musical Purlie, which won Tonys for stars Cleavon Little and Melba Moore. Maybe we’ll get that too but for now revel in Ossie, Victorious.