PURLIE VICTORIOUS Has Lost None of Its Bite — Review
When the inimitable Kara Young bursts onto stage near the top of the second act of Purlie Victorious, she brings with her precisely the outrageous, manic energy that the production has so desperately been missing.
The scene in question is not Young’s first entrance, but rather her character Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins’ first attempt at impersonating Beatrice Judson, the college student whom she has been enlisted to imitate. A self-described “maid first class” who has “never even been near a college,” Lutiebelle is terrified by her assignment. But when the moment arrives, she commits.
Young shoots across the stage in giant strides, her back arched beyond all reason, whole body up on her toes. “Most indo I deed!” she squeaks at a thoroughly charmed Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders), who cannot tell this young Black woman from the (very much deceased) one she is impersonating—even as Lutiebelle stumbles over mangled references to her “ancient maidenhead.” It is a riotously hilarious scene and a showcase for two-time Tony-nominee Young’s genius delivery and masterful physical humor.
It is also one of few moments when this revival of Ossie Davis’ razor-sharp satire Purlie Victorious (A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch) fully comes to life. Back on Broadway for the first time since its historic 1961 premiere, Davis’ play has lost little of its bite. But under an ill-suited Kenny Leon’s direction, it has received an unevenly paced and tonally confused production that never finds the same delightful boldness as Young’s performance.
Tony Award winner Leslie Odom, Jr. takes on the titular role of Purlie “Victorious” Judson, a preacher returning home to rural Georgia in the Jim Crow-era late 1950s to form an integrated flock at his local church. His family is owed $500 by brutish plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee—but Purlie knows they will never receive their rightful inheritance by asking nicely. So he not only enlists Lutiebelle to impersonate Cousin Bee, the money’s previous inheritor, but also persuades his brother Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones), who still works for Cotchipee, to attest to Lutiebelle’s false identity. Of course, things do not go quite to plan.
Odom, an effortlessly charismatic performer, has no trouble getting his tongue around Davis’ dense, quick-fire dialogue. He particularly nails a tricky late monologue in which Purlie recounts, with fiery passion, his delivering righteous justice to Cotchipee on behalf of all the cotton pickers working under his oppressive hand. It didn’t really happen, but as Purlie regales his family with the fantasy, Odom channels legacies of discrimination and stifled rage.
Odom is not, however, a naturally comedic actor, though he can be funny. The play demands Purlie exist as a larger-than-life figure, able to talk anyone into anything–an effortless wit who barrels heedlessly through any obstacle, tossing quips as he goes. Odom takes a more solemn approach, and while the play still essentially works, it loses a lot of laughs as a result.
The tonal confusion really stems from Leon’s tentative direction, which lacks the frantic pace that the play’s comedy demands. The production’s energy levels ebb and flow, while leisurely scene transitions keep sapping its momentum. If the goal is outrageous slapstick, only Young has been successfully pushed to that level. Heather Alicia Simms and Vanessa Bell Calloway, as Purlie’s sister and the Cotchipee’s housekeeper respectively, are both oddly grounded. Jay O. Sanders gets closer with his snarly, spitting Ol’ Cap’n, but feels a bit too legitimately threatening when he should be an object of absurdity, someone whose hatefulness is deconstructed by the character’s own ridiculousness.
Davis does drop the high comedy for Purlie’s final monologue, when the preacher is finally able to address his congregation and proclaim: “Tonight, my friends — I find, in being Black, a thing of beauty: a joy; a strength; a secret cup of gladness; a native land in neither time nor place; a native land in every Negro face.” It’s a moving speech, and Odom delivers it with stirring grace. But it would land much harder if this were the very first time Odom and the production were pausing to take a breath. Since the pace has slackened many times previously, that intended shift does not land the way it could.
One other performer gets close to Davis’ intended absurdity: the wonderful Billy Eugene Jones as Gitlow, who ping-pongs amusingly between appeasing Cotchipee’s cruel whims and indulging his brother’s grand schemes. Yet even the tremendously funny Jones (who is on quite a run, following his riotous turn in Fat Ham earlier this year) feels reined in, not fully exploiting the wackiness that Gitlow’s dual loyalties could indulge.
It is only Young who fully embraces the maxim that sits most powerfully at the center of Davis’ play: that racism is ultimately an absurdity, and intolerance loses much of its power when presented to reflect that glorious absurdity, so we can join together in laughing blind hate right in its face.
Purlie Victorious is now in performance on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.