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Purlie Victorious

A person and person in suits

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Leslie Odom, Jr., Kara Young (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)


Purlie Victorious

A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch


Reviewed by Julia Polinsky



Director Kenny Leon and the company of Purlie Victorious have brought to vivid life this in-your-face revival of Ossie Davis's sixty-year-old play. Written in 1961, a century after the Civil War, the play takes place in the cotton plantation country of The Old South, and in "the recent past." At lights-up, the rustic barn-board set (spectacular scenic design from Derek McLane), holds a rack of costumes (Emilio Sosa), and the cast, in nowadays clothes, enter, dress as their characters, and leave. This very modern setting of the scene sends a message: what you're about to see is something about today, covered up in period clothing. Be aware.


Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom, Jr.) -- part con man, part itinerant preacher, part activist for his race - has returned to the cotton plantation where he grew up. His brother, Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones) and sister-in-law Missy (Heather Alicia Sims) still live in the family shack. Purlie's return to the area is spurred by a mission: he wants to reclaim the family church that the Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders) wrested from the Black community.


The preacher in him wants to preach the gospel of freedom; the con man wants to buy the church with a $500 "inheritance" he's not actually entitled to receive. The money was left to an aunt, now dead; her only child, Cousin Bee, is also dead. Purlie is not one to let such petty details stand in his way. To help him, he has brought along the delightfully named Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, (Kara Young) a na ve and impressionable Alabama girl who fell for his religious line and has followed him to the cotton patch, not quite aware of the con.


Purlie plans to have Lutiebelle impersonate Cousin Bee, and confront Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, who, through a plot twist too complex to repeat, has custody of the money. Then things get even more complicated, as the na ve, young house worker Lutiebelle needs to impersonate the college educated, sophisticated Cousin Bee.


A group of people sitting at a table

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Jay O. Sanders, Billy Eugene Jones, Kara Young, Leslie Odom, Jr. (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)


Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, a loud-and-proud Confederate who believes fully that white people were put on earth to oppress "inferior" black people, is assembled from a collection of cliches as appalling as can be, from his Colonel Sanders white suit and black ribbon bow tie, to the bullwhip he fondles throughout - you read that right - and speaking of "his" Nigras - you read that right, too.





This hard-core bigot, who whipped Purlie 20 years ago and looks forward to doing it again, has control of the plantation, the people who work on it, and the money, but not of his son, Charlie (Noah Robbins). Charlie wholeheartedly supports integration, even though it costs him beatings and his father's threat to kill him. For him, integration is the law of the land, as much as it is the right thing to do. Charlie learned kindness and to love and value Black people from his mammy - you read that right, too - Idella (Vanessa Bell Calloway).


Clich after clich show up throughout the show. The con man/preacher. The kindly mammy. The formidable Black woman. The obsequious Uncle Tom with a darker side. The na ve country girl. The White Ally. The appalling bigot. It's as if the author, Ossie Davis, used these archetypes to make sure that people would understand that satire and farce are tools to be used to help people understand uncomfortable truths.


A person and person sitting at a table

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Noah Robbins, Vanessa Bell Calloway (Photo: Marc J. Franklin)


Spectacular performances from Leslie Odom, Jr. (Tony-winner for Hamilton) and Kara Young, both Broadway veterans and superb actors, raise the play above the collection of caricatures it seems on the surface. The rest of the cast also give remarkable performances, but clearly, Young and Odom, Jr. are the center, the draw, the stars.


Leslie Odom, Jr.'s performance matures Purlie throughout the play. He uses his remarkable voice to cajole, con, preach; to offer hope, to lie, to stretch out time. He almost sings some lines. He's also a wonderfully physical actor, and by the end, when he's preaching a sermon of the Constitution and freedom, he holds the audience completely in his eloquent hands.


Kara Young's performance of the transformed Lutiebelle is a highlight of her splendid work throughout the play, one of the farcical moments that brings howls of laughter from the audience. Farce requires timing and physicality, and Young hits all the moments delightfully. So do the rest of the cast, when some full-bodied racing around and indecision get the full-force-farce treatment in scene after scene.


At the end, Purlie is indeed Victorious, and the cast assemble in the church, integrated for the first time ever, preaching directly to the audience a gospel of hope. Director Kenny Leon, in the pre-show announcement, expresses the wish that the audience will end up "somewhere between rage and hope." Purlie Victorious made that happen.



Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch

At the Music Box Theater

239 W. 45th St.

Tickets $48-298

1:45; no intermission