Now showing at the Music Box Theatre in New York City, Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp through the Cotton Patch is poised for a Broadway triumph. A revival of Ossie Davis’s 1961 pre-Civil Rights era play, Purlie Victorious is a comedy tour-de-force that packs a punch in our conflicted times.
In the hands of Kenny Leon, the Tony Award-winning director of A Raisin in the Sun, Purlie Victorious offers a rapid-fire take on Davis’s play, which traces the story of Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom, Jr.), a traveling preacher who returns to his rural Georgia hometown on a mission to save Big Bethel, the local church, from certain ruin. In order to raise the necessary funds to revitalize the church, Purlie hatches an elaborate plan to swindle an estranged cousin’s inheritance from Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders), the corrosive plantation owner who rules the town with an iron fist.
Fortunately, Purlie has an ace up his sleeve in Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young), his adoring protégée who reluctantly agrees to pose as his long-lost cousin in order to separate Cotchipee from his money. Hilarity ensues when Purlie and Lutiebelle infiltrate the plantation where Cotchipee has locked horns with his educated, liberal-minded son Charlie (Noah Robbins), who has grown uneasy with his father’s ruthless, exploitative ways.
With a striking set courtesy of Derek McLane, Purlie Victorious is a feast for the eyes and ears. Odom is a joy to behold, chewing up the scenery with his spitfire delivery of Davis’s dialogue. Meanwhile, Young all but steals the show as Lutiebelle, whom she brings roaring to life with a comedic touch reminiscent of Lucille Ball in her prime. The splendid ensemble cast is rounded out by Missy Judson (Heather Alicia Simms) and her wisecracking husband Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones), along with stage veterans Vanessa Bell Calloway (Dreamgirls) and Bill Timoney (Network) as Idella, Cotchipee’s longsuffering housekeeper, and the town’s beleaguered sheriff, respectively.
At its heart, Purlie Victorious is a work of uproarious fun. To Leon’s great credit, audiences will find themselves rolling in the aisles with laughter, while recognizing the satiric barbs lurking just below the play’s fusillade of guffaws. But even the show’s unbridled sense of humor can’t camouflage our sobering twenty-first-century reality. When Davis’s play closed on Broadway after 261 performances in 1962, the United States was poised to reap the sociocultural benefits associated with sweeping civil rights legislation. Six decades later, we find ourselves shifting perilously into an unknown future where Cotchipee’s real-life inheritors seem hell bent on destroying those hard-fought gains.
Even still, Leon deftly sews a silver lining into the fabric of Purlie Victorious. The play profoundly demonstrates that the only way for good people to defeat the Cotchipees of the world is for white and black, in spite of everything that may have come before, to join together against the common enemy of racism.
Dr. Kenneth Womack serves as Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University. He is Editor of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies: A Journal of Criticism and Theory, published by Penn State University Press, and Co-Editor of the English Association’s prodigious Year’s Work in English Studies, published by Oxford University Press. Over the years, he has shared his work with public libraries and community organizations across the nation, including audiences at Princeton University, Harvard University, the Smithsonian Institution, the Grammy Museum, and the 92nd Street Y. He has also served as an expert commentator for ABC’s 20/20 and NBC’s Access Hollywood.
Womack is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Beatles and their enduring cultural influence. He is the author of a two-volume biography devoted to famed Beatles producer Sir George Martin, including Maximum Volume (2017) and Sound Pictures (2018). His latest book, John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life (2020), traces the story of the former Beatle’s comeback after five years of self-imposed retirement. Ken’s Beatles-related books include Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles (2007), The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (2009), The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four (2014), and Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles (2019). Ken’s books about the Beatles are included in the permanent collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives. Ken is also the author of five novels, including John Doe No. 2 and the Dreamland Motel (2010), The Restaurant at the End of the World (2012), Playing the Angel (2013), I Am Lemonade Lucy! (2019), and The Time Diaries (2021). His work has appeared in such venues as Salon, Slate, Billboard, Time, Variety, USA Today, Smithsonian Magazine, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Independent, The Liverpool Echo, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.