The first commercial production in 61 years, Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch returns to Broadway in a triumphant revival led by Tony winner Leslie Odom, Jr. (Hamilton). Playwright, actor, and social justice activist Ossie Davis wrote and starred in the original production. Director Kenny Leon’s fast-paced staging delivers plenty of laughs and a sense of urgency as Purlie and his cohorts attempt to claim an inheritance so he can buy Big Bethel Church.
No Tea, No Shade
You can practically feel the sun emanating through Derek McLane’s wood-slat scenic design, depicting the modest living quarters of Purlie’s sister (Heather Alicia Sims) and brother-in-law Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones). Purlie bursts on the scene with Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young), whom he hopes to pass off as a long-lost cousin, claim a settlement, purchase a church, and set up a permanent home to preach.
But Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders) will need to be convinced that Lutiebelle is the relative from years gone by, and he’s not exactly eager to give up any more power in the post-emancipation South, despite his son Charlie’s (Noah Robbins) more progressive perspective.
Once the premise is set, the acting company stokes the coals and drives Purlie Victorious at high speed and even higher stakes. Leon understands comedy masterfully but never keeps the prize — freedom — out of site. Set in “The Recent Past,” one can’t help but identify with the resonance of Davis’s satirical script as our country faces a surge of discriminatory legislation, including bans on race-conscious college admissions and the teaching of critical race theory.
The acting company’s charisma and comedic timing balance the play’s social commentary. When Lutiebelle proclaims, “Life can be so good to us — sometimes!” Missy responds, “Being colored can be a lotta fun when ain’t nobody looking.” This celebration of Black joy permeates the play and ultimately prevails.
Let’s Have a Moment
It’s been seven years since Leslie Odom Jr. captivated audiences as Aaron Burr in the original Broadway production of Hamilton — seven years too long. The charming actor seizes Purlie with an unrelenting zeal, which peaks when the preacher recounts marching up to Ol’ Cap’n’s estate to demand the money due and deliver retribution. Never mind that the story he weaves may not be exactly (or even close) to what happened, Odom Jr. relishes in Purlie’s poetic prose as if he were preaching from the pulpit.
Young, as the lustful Lutiebelle, is equally as irresistible. She continues establishing herself as one of the next generation of Broadway’s great actresses, earning a Tony nomination for her role in Cost of Living last season and co-starring opposite Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) in Clyde’s the year prior.
The Last Word
In a Broadway season anticipating revivals like Spamalot and Merrily We Roll Along, Davis’s play offers an exquisite examination of race, family, and justice. “Look at this penmanship, poetry, movement, and song. Many times, I think for an African American work, they have a different set of rules to gauge its greatness,” director Leon told the New York Times. “But this soars as a true work of art.”
Purlie Victorious lives up to its title.
Purlie Victorious plays on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre through January 7, 2024.