Most of us know Ossie Davis as an actor and an activist. That is about to change with the opening tonight of his play “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch”.
Perhaps best known for the work that inspired the popular musical “Purlie”, “Purlie Victorious” stands on its own as a major achievement. It is also a rediscovery, since it hasn’t been seen in a commercial production since 1961 when it opened on Broadway at the Cort Theatre.
The plot may seem simplistic. Purlie has come home to Cotchipee County (locale: somewhere in the Deep, Deep South) to reclaim an inheritance owed to his family and purchase the church called Big Bethel. However, the machinations that involve this reclamation are anything but. And Davis’s sharp-witted script, embellished with delicious one-liners, is a comic feast of Machivellian twists and turns that result in one of the freshest and funniest play that that we’ve seen in years. The side-splitting shenanigans that transpire in the fast-paced 95 minutes are complemented by unexpected surprises. When Purlie welcomes his soon-to-be disciple Lutiebelle into his home, you think he will be effusively greeted by Aunt Missy, his sister-in-law. And that’s just when the fun begins, courtesy of the expert staging of Kenny Leon. Leon’s stagings of such powerhouse plays as “Fences,” “A Raisin in the Sun”, last season’s “TopDog UnderDog” and “Ohio State Murders” have cemented his reputation as one of our most accomplished directors. Hitherto, he’s not been able to establish his mark in comedy. That mark is made indelibly with this production. And what an ensemble has been assembled: Leslie Odom radiates charm, charisma and conviction as our protagonist who specializes in “white folk psychology”; Kara Young, nominated for back-to-back Tonys the past two seasons in “Clydes” and “The Cost of Living”, surprises as the most engaging comedienne Broadway has seen since Annaleigh Ashford captivated in “You Can’t Take It With You”; Bill Eugene Jones, seen earlier this season in “Fat Ham”, is uproarious as Gitlow, the “deputy for the colored”; Jay O. Sanders is bombastically hilarious as the Ol Cap’n, the symbol of the Old South; Noah Robbins, in the role that Alan Alda originated, is a wonderfully amusing antagonist to his father, the ol Cap’n; Vanessa Bell Colby’s “That’s the Biggest Lie Since the Devil Learned to Talk” line brings down the house with her exquisite comic timing and the sheriff and deputy of Bill Timoney and Noah Pyzik are goofily expert. It’s a terrific ensemble.
Derek McLane’s set transformation for the epilogue wins applause and it deserves to. And the epilogue itself is so memorable…combining ,as much as “Purlie Victorious” does, humor with power resulting in uplifting joyousness.
Verdict: You’ll have a great time. Purlie not only emerges Victorious but this is a triumphant return to Broadway of a wonderful play.