‘Purlie Victorious’ skewers racism with passion—and laughter
The Daily Beast
September 27, 2023
Ossie Davis’ 1961 play “Purlie Victorious,” revived on Broadway starring Leslie Odom Jr. and Kara Young, is an indictment of white supremacy that uses humor to puncture prejudice.
Ossie Davis’ Purlie Victorious (A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch) is both uproarious satire and cultural gut punch—with the biggest clue in its lead character’s name and the play’s title. A happy ending for Purlie Victorious Judson (the excellent Leslie Odom Jr.) is guaranteed. To get there, the play, first performed in 1961 and now revived on Broadway (Music Box Theatre, booking to Jan 7, 2024), confronts racism in tooth and claw, leavened by the laughter of farce and slapstick.
These two very different dramatic registers echo off the other; the play is serious in intent, and also serious about using humor as its ultimate puncturing weapon against prejudice. Director Kenny Leon smoothly operates the levers to maximize the impact of both—no easy thing tonally. He is aided by a low-key beautiful design by Derek McLane (which has its own luminous swansong), and similarly attractive costumes by Emilio Sosa and lighting by Adam Honoré.
The setting is described as “the cotton plantation country of the Old South,” the time, “the recent past”—i.e., the late 1950s. Within the play, Jim Crow laws are still in effect; the show’s villain Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee is so ugly in his views and actions, the actor Jay O. Sanders (so good at delivering them) received boos at the curtain call.
As the play opens, traveling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson has returned to his small Georgia town hoping to save its church and free the cotton pickers who work on Cotchipee’s plantation. With him, he has brought Lutibelle Gussimae Jenkins (Kara Young, in another commanding, stage-filling performance following her Tony-nominated roles in Cost of Living and Clyde’s) to impersonate his recently deceased Cousin Bee, who is the rightful inheritor of the $500 that will enable him to buy and integrate the church.
A modern audience, a 2023 audience, must travel to 1961—and to Davis’ very deliberate narrative balancing act—to meet the play not just when it was written, but how it was written. This wonderful cast does precisely that, playing the laughs for every ounce of hilarity to be gleaned from them, and then in a sudden turn confronting racism and white supremacy head-on. Ol’ Cap’n, and all he represents, are shown to be both vicious and ridiculous.
The Tony-and Grammy-winning Odom plays Purlie as both a fixer, eyes on the prize, willing to do anything to get his church, and someone keen to avenge the racist sins of the past. “The South is split like a fat man’s underwear, and somebody besides the Supreme Court has got to make a stand for the everlasting glory of our people,” he says.
Joy, as well as anger, is emphasized throughout. As his sister-in-law Missy (Heather Alicia Simms) says, “Freedom—and a little something left over—that’s all I ever wanted all my life.” She adds, “Being colored can be a lotta fun when ain’t nobody looking.”
This notion of fun and the very opposite of fun makes the play a particularly acute exercise in listening and watching. In our audience there was much laughter, much horrified shock, and maybe some confusion in how to respond. Davis knew this keenly—he acknowledged the play’s complexity and complexity of response himself.
In a commemorative booklet, published in 1993, over thirty years after the play was first performed on Broadway at the Cort Theatre in September 1961, Davis—who played Purlie in the production, with his wife, Ruby Dee, as Lutibelle—recalled that Dr. W.E.B. DuBois was there on opening night; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came later in the run, “and commended it highly.”
Malcolm X, who did not believe in integration (while Purlie very much does), “was more than commendatory; he was enthusiastic,” Davis said. “Anything that held the ‘white devil’ and his racist practices up to scorn and ridicule had his approval.”
For Davis, “Though Purlie Victorious was a comedy aimed at America’s funnybone, it was dead serious in its purpose: to point a mocking finger at racial segregation and laugh it out of existence.”
However, he noted, “there were others—white and Black, friends and colleagues, loved and respected—who were vehement in their opposition to the play, which they felt in many ways to be condescending if not demeaning. To them, we Negroes were locked in a life and death struggle against white, bigoted, Jim Crow oppressors. The cause was serious, and laughter was the last thing we needed at a time like this—bad for morale, and definitely out of order.”
For his critics, Davis noted, “White folks already looked upon us as a race of clowns, incapable of acting like men, and that was part of the problem. What we needed from the theater was not buffoons, but heroes hurling invectives, like Frederick Douglass and Patrick Henry.”
To them, humor was “not a weapon” but “a confirmation of our cowardice—our lack of manly resolve and self-respect in the face of the enemy.”
Davis said he felt the exact same rage at injustice and inequality; he had grown up in the South, where “no racial indignity, except lynching and the chain gang, had passed me by.” But as he wrote the play, the passion felt “overblown and swollen,” and he began to “let the characters take the play in hand and follow their own fates.”
Davis said he intended the play—a musical adaptation, Purlie, premiered in 1970—to be an honest product of the Cotton Patch. “Most of the habits and folkways and social customs that now inform Black culture had their foundation in that poor, rural, oppressive environment… Our songs, our dances, our religion, our education, our politics—most all of our culture sprang from that common source.”
His parents and their parents were quite familiar with “a life of poverty, of fraud, of lynchings, of insults, of justice continually denied. Yet they never told of these horrors without laughing at them. We now know they laughed to keep from crying.”
Young’s Lutibelle seems a wide-eyed innocent, madly in love with Purlie, but that desire is coupled with a desire for something else—a proper, full life. Billy Eugene Jones’ Gitlow, Purlie’s mischievous brother, knows how to play the game with Ol’ Cap’n, while also seeing his racism for exactly what it is. When the white man bids him sing a spiritual he loves so much, he adds that he “lives for the day you’ll sing that thing over my grave.”
Jones, looking out to the audience levelly, drops his smile to remark with emphasis: “Me too, Ol’ Cap’n, me too!” Jones makes it both funny and absolutely dead-serious.
Ol’ Cap’n’s poisonous racism blinds the old white man to his true nemesis, his son Charlie (Noah Robbins), who despises his father’s bigotry and will eventually ensure that Purlie secures both the funds and the church. Robbins plays him with a reedy moral certainty—a dweeb with a heroic heart—who stands firm even as his father bellows at him that he could beat him to death and blow his “blasted brains” out. Sanders gives the litany of hideous words Cotchipee says all the force they require—and then shades his quieter words to Charlie with befuddled tenderness. It does not make him sympathetic, but it does remind us he is a human being.
It is an unexpected contrast in a play full of them. A fight that erupts after cops come to arrest Purlie and Lutibelle becomes Keystone Cops-farcical, rather than a searing moment of racial injustice. Purlie goes to confront Ol’ Cap’n after an alleged assault on Lutibelle, and his graphic description of how he came to murder him turns out to be nonsense.
It is telling in the story that the true and right execution of change is overseen by the good white character (Charlie), given the system of white supremacy is so freighted against the Black characters receiving what is rightfully theirs on their own terms. His avatar in this, in another wonderful performance, is his childhood nurse and still-confidant Idella, who Vanessa Bell Calloway plays with a steely watchfulness.
In the spirit of the play, the final vanquishing of Ol’ Cap’n is absurd and hilarious—a moment of ridicule—rather than one of righteous indignation. “He was a man—despite his own example,” Purlie says.
Yet, the play’s questions remain (“Who made it like this—who put the white man on top?”). Davis closes the play with a stirring speech by Purlie, which Odom delivers with a concentrated compression. It is addressed, just as the play has been addressed, to a Black audience, and again it is a speech of contrasts and passionate aspiration. “Accept in full the sweetness of your Blackness—not wishing to be red, nor white, nor yellow; nor any other race, or face, but this.”
Purlie’s final hope—that the departments of state and reforming laws will be used to rightly enforce and ensure equality—is one proven partially achieved, but in the 60-plus years since 1961, constantly attacked and undermined by bigots on the streets and in power. Our knowledge of the viciousness and persistence of racism and white supremacy is all too current. Political candidates for the highest office in the land pander to right-wing extremists and their bigotry for votes and power.
But Purlie remains a determined idealist, and this play is a radical text of another time—proposing that joy and laughter are as vital acts of resistance as placards and protest.
Beah Richards, who played Idella in 1961, recalled a Black woman sitting in the front row she nicknamed “Laugh,” who Richards recalled “rocking herself back and forth and filling the theater with peal after peal of a most joyous sound seldom heard in the theater before or since.”