In 1960, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that interstate buses and bus terminals were required to integrate. John F. Kennedy was elected, but much to the surprise of African Americans who helped him to office, he introduced no new Civil Rights legislation. In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organized integrated Freedom Rides to defy segregation in interstate transportation. Leaders were attacked. This is the environment into which this show’s original production arrived.
Leslie Odom, Jr.(Purlie) and Kara Young (Lutiebelle)
September 1961, Purlie Victorious “bounced and whooped into the Cort Theatre… Although his good humor never falters, he (Ossie Davis) has made his play a vehicle for a powerful and passionate sermon,” wrote Howard Taubman in The New York Times. Having grown up in Georgia his children now tell us, the playwright apparently tried to write with high minded hate, but found himself viewing history as ridiculous.
That Davis conveys his message by employing Uncle Tom stereotypes is quite a trick. The groveling cotton picker, a silver-tongued evangelical, a despicable plantation owner, and mammy types exist here as relatable people, definitely more than the sum of their packaging.
The piece begins with actors taking garments off a clothes rack i.e. we know that they know exaggeration has its place. Exemplifying the best of satire, righteous truth is insidiously layered just below the surface of Director Kenny Leon’s erupting physicality and well timed mugging. Towards the end, as the piece emulates a tented revival meeting and the fourth wall dissolves, our audience is primed to testify/call out in support. Some do just that. Energy and positivism are irrepressible. If only the country followed suit.
Heather Alicia Simms (Missy) and Billy Eugene Jones (Gitlow)
We’re in 1950s segregated Georgia. Activist preacher Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom, Jr.) returns home to claim a $500 family inheritance. Predominantly self educated, Purlie has an extraordinary gift of oratory. His plan is to buy and restore an old church of which he’ll become pastor and to defy local tradition to integrate it. “I preach the baptism of freedom for all men.”
In order to secure a legacy left to his recently deceased cousin, Purlie must convince White plantation owner Ol’Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders, who might’ve made more of this) that Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young), an innocent conscripted out of an Alabama church choir, is, in fact, Bea. The girl barely understands her use, blindly following the man she admires. Young’s accent swallows her words the first fifteen minutes.
Pearlie’s brother Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones, who offers skilled range) has feathered his rudimentary bed by kowtowing to Ol’Cap, singing “Ole Black Joe” on demand, earning the title “Deputy For All The Coloreds.” He’s sure the scheme will get them all killed. All includes his strong, grounded wife, Missy (Heather Alicia Simms). In fact, she’s in favor of the attempt, wacking Gitlow in the head to make her point. He’s elected to intercede with the White boss. “Some of the best pretending is done in front of White folks,” Purlie suggests, eliciting snickers from the audience.
Front: Jay O. Sanders (Ol’Cap’n Cotchipee), Kara Young (Lutiebelle), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Purlie); Back: Billy Eugene Jones (Gitlow)
Up at the white house on the hill, no nonsense Mammy Idella Landy (Vanessa Bell Calloway) is tending a black eye garnered by young Charlie Cotchipee while championing integration at local schools. In 1954, a Supreme Court case declared that schools across the country must become racially equal. Charlie repeats this fact to no avail. The polar opposite of his dad, much to the latter’s disdain – “You’re a disgrace to the southland” – the boy is liberal. Casting Noah Robbins secures not only a low key, believable actor, but a seemingly frail physical type who might, under most circumstances, quake before his bombastic father.
While Purlie and a specially dressed Lutiebelle wait outside, Gitlow butters up Ol’Cap. “Is it not your opinion that all my Negras are happy?” the White boss challenges. “As God is my judge and you are my boss,” comes the reply. Gitlow mugs behind the large, white linen clad back.
Things do not evolve as mapped out. The scene where Purlie and thoroughly inept Lutiebelle work at persuading Ol’Cap to hand over the money is a remarkable piece of writing and exuberant farce. Threats are made, lies told, deceptions revealed. There’s a happy ending.
Kara Young, Heather Alicia Simms, Leslie Odom, Jr., Vanessa Bell Callaway, Billy Eugene Jones, Noah Robbins
This incarnation of Purlie Victorious is piercingly lucid and fun.
Leslie Odom, Jr. makes a meal of this role. To Purlie, intentions excuse methods. We see no guilt. Reaction to Lutiebelle’s first, unexpected kiss is a nifty moment. The way he begins to look at and touch her indicates growing feeling, replete with some surprise. Sweeping speeches could still any crowd.
As Lutiebelle, Kara Young takes a few beats to read authentic. When she does, however, gradual change from innocence to determination and desire envelop the actress like a good winter coat.
Also featuring Bill Timoney as Sheriff and Noah Pyzik as his deputy.
Director Kenny Leon keeps the show at an extremely high energy level. One gets enmeshed from Purlie’s entrance and stays there until he stands at the pulpit of his dreams. Leon uses the entire stage with flair and motivation. Physical acting is grandly in aid of the expansive script with one exception. Masquerading as Bea, Lutiebelle looks like a cartoon spastic, legs and arms twitching every bendy which way. She appears ill or mad instead of panicked.
Derek McLane’s excellent set morphs fluidly from one environment to the other with its last incarnation, a church, somehow startling in expanse. The choice of pale, slatted wood is original.
Costumes by Emilio Sosa are in every case, appropriate and telling. Hair and wig design are realistic. Guy Davis’s original music fits like a puzzle piece. Fight Director Thomas Schall has offered much better in the past. Altercation here is a miss.
Photos by Marc J. Franklin
Purlie Victorious – A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch by Ossie Davis
Directed by Kenny Leon
The Music Box Theater
239 West 45th Street