Reasons to see 'Purlie Victorious' on Broadway

From to the writing to the set details to the performances, including from leads Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kara Young, this rare revival is victorious in every way.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Churches (and the church-adjacent) are having a moment on Broadway. The irreverent The Book of Mormon has skewered the Mormon church and then some for over a decade and counting. Doubt, an award-winning drama about suspected misconduct by a priest, has its first revival in February. And through January, Leslie Odom, Jr. is taking us to church in Purlie Victorious, its own first revival since 1961.

Playwright Ossie Davis's satire has an actual church at the center of the action: a run-down Georgia one nicknamed Big Bethel. Odom's character, the title preacher, wants to buy it back from a racist landowner and restore it. It's the Jim Crow era, so that task requires some scheming — which, as in any good comedy, doesn't pan out as planned.

In contrast, every part of director Kenny Leon's production goes off without a hitch. From the big-name casting to the smallest set details, everything about Purlie Victorious is heavenly.

The cast is a blessing to Broadway.

It's hard to top Ossie Davis himself starring in the title role opposite his real-life wife, Ruby Dee, as Purlie's besotted congregant Lutiebelle back in 1961. But casting Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kara Young is an equally inspired choice. They're not real-life spouses, but they bring an electricity I could only imagine 1960s audiences felt, too.

We know Odom can bounce from charismatic to calculating to combative on a dime — he won a Tony for doing it as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, after all. But Young, who earned back-to-back Tony nominations the past two years for dramatic roles, unexpectedly steals the show with keen comic chops.

One perfect line delivery sticks out: When Lutiebelle claims a relative died of heart trouble, and Purlie notes it was actually gunshot wounds, Young explodes like a cannon as she retorts: "His heart stopped beating, didn't it?!"

The writing is sharp as ever.

In a way, it's unfortunate that Davis's whip-smart satire of race in America has aged like wine. If only this Jim Crow-set play could fully feel like a period piece, a relic of an unfathomable past where racism loomed large. Sadly, that's still very much the case. But it means Purlie Victorious still feels urgent 60 years on. As Purlie says to his sister-in-law on why he doesn't expect an easy change to their fortunes, "You've been Black as long as I have..."

I had no doubt the writing was good, but it truly is marvelous. Most audiences coming to see it are likely at least somewhat familiar with basic racial justice talking points, and much political theatre falls short by rehashing those and little else. But none of Davis's dialogue feels banal or trite. He was smart about it, baking pointed observations about the Black American experience into witty, original humor.

There's no devil in these details.

Every visual element of Purlie Victorious clicks perfectly into place. The evocative description of Lutiebelle as "pretty as a pan of buttermilk biscuits." Cap'n Cotchipee's strictly white outfit choices. The modest curtains that roll onto the stage just before the play begins, completing the set (and regularly eliciting their own round of applause). Credit Davis, costume designer Emilio Sosa, and set designer Derek McLane, respectively. It's the little things that take the play to the next level.

Get tickets to Purlie Victorious on Broadway.

Simply put, Purlie Victorious is, well, victorious in every way. Though it was one of the earliest premieres of the fall Broadway lineup, the show is already poised to be among the best revivals of the season — and only running through February. Get thee to Big Bethel (the Music Box Theatre, that is)!

Photo credit: Kara Young, Heather Alicia Simms, Leslie Odom, Jr., Vanessa Bell Calloway, Billy Eugene Jones, and Noah Robbins in Purlie Victorious. (Photo by Marc J. Franklin)

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