The final act of the uproarious “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch” opens with a character waving a folding chair through the air, a reference to the August 2023 Montgomery Riverfront Racial Brawl. The wave of shrieking laughs from the audience showcases just how topical Ossie Davis’ 1961 play still is today, 62 years after it first debuted on Broadway.
“Purlie Victorious” opens in Southern Georgia in a rundown farmhouse, home to generations of Black sharecroppers. Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom Jr.) bustles through the front door. Sharply dressed and clearly in a hurry, Purlie, who the audience quickly learns has the gift for gab, calls out for anyone who might not be in the fields yet. Coming through the door shortly after Purlie is the petite but boisterous Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young), scrambling to keep up with the quick-footed preacher without toppling over under the weight of her large suitcase.
The farmhouse turns out to be Purlie’s childhood home. Though he left Georgia years ago, his brother, Gitlow Judson (Billy Eugene Jones), the plantation’s “Deputy for the Coloreds,” and his no-nonsense sister-in-law, Missy Judson (Heather Alicia Simms), remain on the land, picking cotton for the crotchety and Confederate-obsessed Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders). A devout separatist whose most prized possession is a bullwhip, Cotchipee believes Black people only attend college for courses in advanced cotton picking.
Purlie’s visit isn’t exactly recreational. A man who values freedom above all else, he’s returned home on a mission to buy back his family’s church and integrate it. However, he’ll need the money inherited by his recently deceased cousin, Bee, to achieve his goal. Since Bee is no longer alive to collect the $500, which happens to be in Cotchipee’s possession, Purlie has enlisted an unassuming Lutiebelle to step into Bee’s high heels, nylons and pressed dresses. For Purlie’s scheme to pan out, he’s banking on Cotchipee’s rampant racism and inability to tell one Black woman from another. After all, as one character quips, “Some of the best pretending in the world is done in front of white people.”
Directed by Kenny Leon, the beauty of the Black vernacular is embedded in the “Purlie Victorious” script. Specificities of Black American life are infused within the jokes as Odom and the cast deftly switch from comedy to drama on a dime. The rapid pacing of the 100-minute show, running without an intermission, means that portions of the audience erupt in laughter at the sharp jokes. In contrast, others sit silently, the countless one-liners soaring above their heads. It presents a stunning contrast.
In addition to the dialogue, the entire cast is terrific, with Odom adapting the cadences of Davis’ oration. In his first Broadway performance since “Hamilton,” Odom electrifies as Purlie. Infusing a charismatic energy into a man who knows what he deserves but is forced to navigate countless prejudices to achieve it, the Tony Award winner is in his element here.
There are also hilarious sequences involving Gitlow and Cotchipee and later Cotchipee’s mousey integrationist son Charlie (Noah Robbins) and his housekeeper Idella (Vanessa Bell Calloway). However, the gem of “Purlie Victorious” is Young’s performance as Lutiebelle. In addition to the electric chemistry between Young and Odom, the “I Am A Virgo” actress’ full-body commitment to her role, paired with Davis’ riveting writing, make her one of the most dynamic performers on the stage today. Though she has a name that Purlie says in as an “insult to the Negro race,” Lutiebelle is self-assured. A domestic worker by trade, she takes pride in her work, is hungry for adventure and refuses to shy away from her undeniable crush on Purlie.
As much as “Purlie Victorious” was and still is a condemnation of the chokehold that white supremacy has on this nation, Davis understood, in the years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the lynching of 14-year-old Emmitt Till, why Black Joy was so important amidst the pain, and why it remains vital now. Though the play is set in the 1950s, a profound honesty sits at the core of the production. In three acts, “Purlie Victorious” showcases the deep-seated history of anti-Blackness in America and an entire race of people’s willingness to thrive despite the constant obstacles thrown in their path.
The themes of “Purlie Victorious” — segregation, racial terror and the unjustness of sharecropping — are no laughing matter. Yet the brilliance of the performers in this first Broadway revival since its original run, and their ability to lean into the playfulness of Davis’ comedy, present the euphoric and revelatory experiences of being Black while commenting on the absolute absurdity of racism. After all, as Missy says at one point during the play, “Being colored is a lot of fun when ain’t nobody looking.”