“Purlie Victorious” Hustles for Social Justice

The Reverend Purlie Victorious Judson (Leslie Odom, Jr.), the hero of Ossie Davis’s 1961 comedy, “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch”—revived on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, directed by Kenny Leon—is, above all else, a hustler. You might know somebody like this: He blusters onto the stage of your life, pouring out plans before he’s properly introduced himself, energized toward some vista that only he can see. He puts an arm over your shoulder and tries to convince you that you’re on your way there together, as partners, but in his mind’s eye, you can tell, he’s up in the pulpit and you’re down in the seats. Half of what he says sounds cockamamie, but something about him—his personal history, perhaps, or a kind of animal endurance in his bearing—persuades you that, somehow, he’ll get what he wants.

In the case of this show, most of what Purlie wants is a fair shake for Black people. He’s an itinerant minister who has come back to the postbellum Georgia plantation where he grew up. He wants to rally the people there—who now work as sharecroppers for Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (the intensely funny Jay O. Sanders)—to take back their local church, Big Bethel. He cooks up a scheme that will, with one stroke, get them the deed to the church and free his family from their impossible debts to Ol’ Cap’n.

Purlie’s a benign enough con man whose con is social justice. He talks sonorously, in a nearly constant preacher’s cadence; he always seems to be skiing downhill, with great skill and heedless abandon, toward some grand, irrefutable point. When he gets really wound up, he adopts a half-sung, high-flown, heavily syncopated tone whose aim is less to emphasize an argument than to stoke a frenzy in a row of invisible congregants. At a peak moment, he rattles off this rhyming confection: “Let us, therefore, stifle the rifle of conflict, shatter the scatter of discord, smuggle the struggle, tickle the pickle, and grapple the apple of peace!”

It’s clear that the clergy isn’t his first racket, and it might not be his last. “Last time you was a professor of Negro philosophy,” his sister-in-law, Missy (Heather Alicia Simms), says, with a hint of acid in her voice. “You got yourself a license?” As the play unfolds, we watch Purlie oscillate between courage and cowardice, brilliance and haplessness, forthrightness and a penchant for telling tall tales. His plan is to pass off a girl whom he captivated via one of his sermons, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young), as his long-lost cousin, Bee, and trick Ol’ Cap’n into handing over a five-hundred-dollar inheritance that he owes the family.

Purlie’s brother, Gitlow (the always impressive Billy Eugene Jones), works for Ol’ Cap’n and plays his role as the Good Negro, singing and shuffling, to a T. He’s been given the farcical title Deputy-for-the-Colored. Another Black member of Ol’ Cap’n’s household is Idella (Vanessa Bell Calloway), who has raised Ol’ Cap’n’s son, Charlie (Noah Robbins), as if he were her own. Purlie’s got to corral all these co-racialists—and their divergent loyalties—and lead them all toward reclaiming Big Bethel.

In creating Purlie, Davis took two long-lasting tropes of communal Black life and twinned them in a single body. On the one hand, Purlie is reminiscent of Father Divine, or, later, the Reverend Ike—a flashy, overconfident preacher who makes lofty promises of prosperity and wins wild, irrational allegiance from Black masses grown tired of living like the lowly Jesus. On the other hand, he’s decided on a career as a self-appointed, semi-professional spokesman for the race. He’s T. D. Jakes and Al Sharpton all at once, a study in the uses and abuses of oratory in Black life.

A creature like Purlie, made up of cultural memory and social satire, is often hard to play. Cliché and niche obscurity, the Scylla and Charybdis of in-group commentary, lie to either side of the role. But Odom guides his performance cannily, playing each of Purlie’s notes with a musician’s tonal perfection. Sometimes he’s an overbearing tuba, sometimes he’s an earnest flute. Odom makes plain at every impasse that, sure, Purlie cares about his image, about collecting disciples—but that he also wakes up each morning with his mind on real freedom for his people.

“Purlie Victorious” is also an investigation of the allure of text in American life. There’s lots of to-do about documents. Purlie’s preaching draws richly from the American past instead of from the Bible. “I preached the New Baptism of Freedom for all mankind, according to the Declaration,” he tells Missy, describing the sermon that drew Lutiebelle to his flock, “taking as my text the Constitution of the United States of America, Amendments First through Fifteenth, which readeth as follows: ‘Congress shall make no law—’ ”

Charlie, Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s egalitarian, integrationist son, constantly refers to statutes. Integration is “the law of the land,” he says to his father, “and I intend to obey it!” The rightful inheritance that Purlie means to purloin by madcap deception is another promissory note whose power drives the action of the play. This obsession with text alienates Purlie and Charlie, and anybody who’d follow them, from the more sensual, instinctual culture of the formerly slaveholding South. Guys like Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee and, in a different way, Gitlow Judson can’t be bothered with the nuances of the law or the declamations of the Declaration: their rules, long held, are unwritten. You know where you fit in by following patterns deeply rooted in the past. Between Blacks and whites there’s something “no Supreme Court in the world can understand,” Ol’ Cap’n says.

It’s funny, then, that this production’s greatest asset, by far, is its emphasis on physical comedy. Odom finds a lyricism in Purlie’s body that’s not always evident in his rhetoric. Jones pairs Gitlow’s nostalgic singing of Negro work songs with a dancer’s precision, allowing his body to convey an ironic subversion: even the most archetypal Uncle Tom might have wordless designs on a brighter future. The whole company moves in choreographed tandem—one bit, at a particularly melodramatic moment, has them running up and downstage like relay racers, skidding with cartoonish exaggeration.

Then there’s Kara Young, whose turn as Lutiebelle is a pinnacle of her burgeoning career. Young’s performances in recent plays such as C. A. Johnson’s “All the Natalie Portmans,” Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s,” and last year’s revival of Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living” showed off her otherworldly comic chops, which she grounds in what feels like a small, true place of personal pain. Here, though, in Lutiebelle, Young has found a perfect vehicle to transmit all the aspects of her talent.

Lutiebelle is a poor, sweet young woman who feels unequal to the task of impersonating Purlie’s cousin Bee—Bee was a beautiful college girl, and Lutiebelle doesn’t consider herself pretty, or smart—but she’s been waiting for a long time, it seems, for a chance at adventure. She was abandoned by her parents at an early age, and it takes almost nothing for her to fall in love with Purlie and his talk. She worries and pines and pouts and puts on airs and tries to learn—in this way, she’s almost a metaphor for an entire race trying to squirm itself, by hook or by crook, toward higher ground.

Young plays Lutiebelle with a physical and emotional energy reminiscent of Lucille Ball’s or Carol Burnett’s. She acts big and broad, then pulls the string of her imagination right back, showing how small, everyday hurt, the kind we all carry around, can fuel a great fire of productive delusion. Young’s approach to acting is like the sophisticated engine of a sleek sports car—she floors the pedal around perilous curves and somehow stops on a dime. There’s nobody quite like her in the theatre, or anywhere else, these days.

Kenny Leon, with his flair for showmanship and sizzle, is the ideal director to match Young’s indomitable energy. His frenetic pacing and elaborate physical setups create a framework in which her intricate riffs can add up to a meaning that stretches beyond the text. Young’s hilarious, heartening Lutiebelle fulfills a hope shared by lovers of performance and workers for social peace—that freedom might be found not only on a page but written in a body, and on the heart. ♦

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