Purlie Victorious

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Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Cititour.com Review
Satire, they say, closes on Saturday night, but I suspect there should be plenty of Saturday night performances still to come for Kenny Leon’s expertly directed production of Ossie Davis’ 1961 satire “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch,” now at the Music Box Theater.

In fact, this crowd-pleasing (and thought-provoking) comedy is so fast and so funny, you may not even realize all the sharp-edged – and sadly, still-timely – rebukes about racism that Davis embedded in his superbly constructed script until the show is over. And then you may not think about anything else for a while.

As Leon mentions in a recorded pre-show announcement, Davis – rightfully angry about a nation slow to accept integration and unwilling (in many places) to treat Black people equally – originally planned to pen a drama. Luckily, he changed his mind, allowing audiences to laugh heartily, at least for the moment.

The play, set in “the recent past,” primarily concerns the efforts of a traveling preacher named Purlie Victorious Judson (Tony Award winner Leslie Odom, Jr.) to get the $500 his family is owed from bigoted plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (an almost unrecognizable Jay O. Sanders, doing fine work as always) so he can buy a local church where he can hold his own brand of services.

To do so, he intends to pass off a naïve stranger he just met named Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young) as his now-deceased cousin Bee (the rightful owner of the money), assuming the Cap’n won’t know one black woman from another. Not a bad assumption, as it turns out, but neither is it the perfect plan.

Rather daringly, Davis used slapstick, vaudeville, and broad characterizations to make his points, and without the ideal cast to put them across, the show could easily fall flat. But casting has long been one of Leon’s strongest suits – as evidenced by his recent productions of “Topdog/Underdog” and “A Soldier’s Play” – and he couldn’t have chosen a finer ensemble than this one.

Unsurprisingly, Odom is pitch-perfect as the sly, charming if slightly weaselly Purlie: a man who can talk his way into – and out of – any difficult situation. (In some ways, one can see the through line from his Aaron Burr in “Hamilton” to Purlie.) And when Purlie finally gets to practice his craft (as Derek McLane’s ultra-clever set transforms into a church), Odom is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Still, he’s not first among equals. That honor belongs to Young, one of the theater’s recent rising stars (and a two-time Tony nominee), who ascends to the pantheon of great performers here. Not displaying a single ounce of her natural sophistication, she embraces Lutiebelle’s innocence and rises to every physical challenge Leon throws at her. There are no false moves and no false moments from Young, and the audience responds to her like they’ve been served buttered biscuits on a silver platter.

Still, there’s not a weak link in this chain. Heather Alicia Simms as Purlie’s loving if frustrated sister-in-law Missy and Vanessa Bell Calloway as the long-suffering servant Idella give full-bodied characterizations to their potentially two-dimensional roles. Meanwhile, Billy Eugene Jones is brilliant as the kowtowing Gitlow, who is all-too-willing to accept the status quo and only reluctantly goes along with younger brother’s schemes.

Best of all, however, is Noah Robbins as Charlie, the Cap’n’s seemingly meek son, determined to get his father to embrace the new reality (specifically, following the laws of the Supreme Court) and, ultimately, finding his own way to subvert his father’s wishes. It’s a subtle yet star-making turn (just as it brought prominence to a young Alan Alda in the original Broadway production).

These days, we’ve all become used to shots in the arm whose side effects only come to the fore a day or two later. “Purlie Victorious” is that kind of much-needed theatrical medicine. Sign up for it now.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 9/27/2023
Closing 2/4/2024

Theatre Info
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036