Review: Satire Comes in All Colors in Ossie Davis’s ‘Purlie Victorious’

Led by Leslie Odom Jr. as a conniving preacher with a conscience, this revival of a 1961 satire of the old South has clockwork staging that makes humor a weapon against historic injustice.

Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kara Young in Purlie Victorious. Marc J. Franklin

Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch | 1hr 45mins. No intermission. | Music Box Theatre | 239 West 45th Street | 212-239-6200

The name’s Purlie, like the heavenly gates—which you’ll never see unless you sit down, shut up and find love in your heart. The name’s also Purlie like the teeth, flashing to the back row as the titular motor-mouthed preacher of Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch sermonizes, wheedles, fabulates, and uses every rhetorical device in creation to grab a piece of justice in the world. 

That world—a Georgia cotton farm where Purlie takes place—will appall audiences today, full of vile racial epithets and grotesque servility performed by sharecroppers for their boss: America’s homegrown commedia dell Jim Crow. Not for nothing does the play’s lengthy subtitle seem to evoke Bugs Bunny and Br’er Rabbit. Even Ruby Dee, author Ossie Davis’s wife, was dubious about the Ol’ Dixie setting and tone of the comedy, which premiered on Broadway in 1961 (and in which she co-starred with Davis). But she soon realized one of the best ways to fight historic injustice is to laugh it out of existence. 

The action begins with the homecoming of the cunning and loquacious Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who ran away 20 years ago after a whipping administered by Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders), the farm’s owner and an unreconstructed Confederate. Welcomed back by his sensible sister-in-law Missy (Heather Alicia Simms) and his skeptical brother, Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones), Purlie is on a mission. Years ago, their Aunt Henrietta was willed $500 by a white employer. Henrietta died, and so did her daughter, Cousin Bee. Purlie and his kin are next in line to inherit. Knowing that Ol’ Cap’n will never give the money to his cotton-picking “negras,” Purlie has enlisted shy and dewy Alabama serving girl Lutiebelle (Kara Young) to impersonate Bee, charm Ol’ Cap’n with Bee’s college-educated ways and grab the cash. The ultimate goal: buy back a local barn that served as the Black church.

Jay O. Sanders, Billy Eugene Jones, Kara Young, and Leslie Odom, Jr (from left) in Purlie Victorious. Marc J. Franklin

At least, that’s the plan. In order to get Davis’s three-act work down to 105 intermissionless minutes, director Kenny Leon and the cast play it breathlessly fast, and the first half-hour can seem a confusing whirl of characters and back story that eventually comes into focus. Still, Davis’s bravura script, stuffed with earthy epigrams and colorful braggadocio, is never dull. “If it’s one thing I am foolproof in,” Purlie declares, “it’s white folks’ psychology.” Later, he defends his elastic way with truth: “I ain’t never in all my life told a lie I didn’t mean to make come true, some day!” Purlie’s not the only one with good lines. “Oh, child,” Missy tells Lutiebelle over a slice of her sweet potato pie, “being colored can be a lotta fun when ain’t nobody looking.” 

Mileage may vary with how you appreciate such humor, which elicited big, grateful laughs at the matinee I attended. You must remember that Davis was writing at the height of the Civil Rights Era, with a putatively liberal President in the White House and the charismatic Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the movement (MLK saw the show). It was the era of nonviolent action and Black is Beautiful, as when Purlie waxes poetic about Lutiebelle: 

This Ibo prize—this Zulu Pearl—

This long lost lily of the black Mandingo—

Kikuyu maid, beneath whose brown embrace

Hot suns of Africa are burning still…

His Pan-Africanist rhapsody is curtly undercut by Missy’s impatient, “I know all that, Purlie, but what’s her name?”  

This being satire (and farce with heart), the villain must be despicable but not really dangerous, and Jay O. Sanders fits the bill. The burly basso-profundo character actor struts about, a Big and Tall Colonel Sanders who, when apoplectic, starts to sputter-stutter like Foghorn Leghorn. Ol’ Cap’n may be quick to grab his bullwhip but, like a bull with a ring in his schnoz, he’s easily led by the nose. Purlie presents the chicken-fried buffoon with a plaque proclaiming him “Great White Father of the Year” and he chokes up with emotion. Cotchipee’s decent, pro-integration son, Charlie (Noah Robbins), sees the ruse and gladly does his part to help.  

Heather Alicia Simms and Billy Eugene Jones in Purlie Victorious. Marc Franklin

Here’s an ensemble to cherish. Odom, Jr. (Hamilton’s original Aaron Burr), no slouch at inhabiting connivers with a conscience, gets a tremendous workout over nearly two hours, mouth and body never idling and culminating in the story he tells of a lurid, Django Unchained–style showdown with Ol’ Cap’n up at the house. Jones, so vibrant in Fat Ham and On Sugarland, brings his physical vitality and charm to Gitlow who, as his name suggests, is ground down by a lifetime of bowing; Simms and her lilting voice are always a joy; and Vanessa Bell Calloway grounds the servant Idella in no-nonsense maternal warmth. 

At the center of this prodigious cast and Leon’s clockwork staging—the pearl if you will—is Kara Young. With several Off Broadway and now three Broadway shows to her credit, Young (Cost of Living, Clyde’s) always astonishes. She’s a walking paradox: demure yet fiery; petite but imposing; seemingly naïve yet a conduit of deep, witchy wisdom. Her physical comedy is outrageous, especially when Lutiebelle, worked into a tizzy about facing Cotchipee, falls apart and reassembles right in front of us. Wobbling on heels, one hip jutted out in a burlesque of urbanity, arching neck and back 30 degrees upstage to catch prompts from Purlie as her eyelids alternate between dilated terror and fluttering on the verge of a fainting spell, Young seems to have packed the clowning of five virtuosi in one compact body. Purlie is victorious indeed; but anyone who gets to see Young in her comic glory is a winner. 

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Review: Satire Comes in All Colors in Ossie Davis’s ‘Purlie Victorious’