'Purlie Victorious' review — hilarious satire still zings after 60 years
Read our five-star review of Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, starring Leslie Odom, Jr., playing at the Music Box Theatre.
Flat-out hilarious and stacked with topflight performances led by Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kara Young, Purlie Victorious is also a triumph when it comes to timing. Suffice it to say the play speaks directly to today’s racial tumult.
Considering Ossie Davis’s satirical melodrama premiered on Broadway in 1961, that says something about the stubbornly enduring bigotry and prejudice this broad satire has squarely in its crosshairs. Without saying the actual contemporary phrase, Davis, a writer, actor, director, and civil rights activist, declared to audiences 62 years ago in this work that Black lives matter.
Subtitled A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, the play unfolds in the late 1950s. Self-made traveling minister Purlie Victorious Judson (Odom) returns to segregated small-town Georgia with a plan to buy and rehab the broken-down local church, Big Bethel, and “preach freedom in the cotton patch.” But first, he must trick Ol Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders) – a whip-lashing Jim Crow tyrant who believes in “all that is white and holy” – into handing over $500 that was bequeathed to Purlie’s family.
Key to Purlie’s plan is his besotted follower from Alabama, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Young). She pretends to be his Cousin Bee, who’s in line for the inheritance. Reluctantly drawn into the ruse is Purlie’s brother, Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones), whose adherence to the old plantation ways leads Cotchipee to cheer him as a “solid, hard-earned Uncle Tom.” Purlie’s sister-in-law Missy (an ace Heather Alicia Simms), who shares the dream of breathing life back into Big Bethel, lends her own source of support.
Lutiebelle is game for anything to help, but she’s unprepared to pull off the high-stakes impersonation, so the Bee sting eventually – and riotously – goes pear-shaped at the plantation.
But Purlie persists. He finds an ally in Cotchipee’s liberal-minded son Charlie (Noah Robbins), who supports court decisions to void segregation. After his mother died in childbirth, Charlie was raised by Idella (Vanessa Bell Calloway), and he believes in the rights of African Americans. That comes in handy.
Zipping along in a fleet-footed 100 streaming minutes, the staging by Kenny Leon (Topdog/Underdog, Ohio State Murders) boasts terrific work across the board. Before the show begins, a rack of clothes on the otherwise bare stage is visible. In a rush, the actors slip into costumes by Emilio Sosa, as if to announce they’ll be playing parts.
Derek McLane’s deceptively rustic-looking set nimbly moves the action from the Judson home to Cap’n Cotchipee’s place and back and, finally, undergoes a holy-mackerel, amen-worthy transformation.
Odom, a Tony winner for Hamilton, is a blast to watch – and hear – as he dives deep to deliver what Davis is preaching. Following back-to-back Tony-nominated performances in the dramas Cost of Living and Clyde’s, Young shows off delightful comic chops and proves again that she makes every project burn brighter.
In a play filled with barbed grenades, one standout seems so simple, but it’s so complex. “Life is so good to us – sometimes,” says Lutiebelle. “Oh, child,” says Missy, “being colored can be a lotta fun when ain’t nobody looking.” Sixty-two years later, the line still zings and, sadly, stings.
Photo credit: Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kara Young in Purlie Victorious. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)
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