By Ossie Davis; Directed by Kenny Leon
Broadway, Play Revival
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street
by Linda Buchwald on 10.3.23
Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kara Young in Purlie Victorious. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
BOTTOM LINE: It was worth the 62-year wait for a revival of Purlie Victorious for this perfectly cast production.
The outstanding production of Purlie Victorious that just opened on Broadway makes one wonder why it took over 60 years for Ossie Davis’ play be revived. Maybe it took that much time for the perfect cast to come along, and it certainly has in this revival directed by Kenny Leon.
Davis’ play originally opened in 1961. Davis also starred in it as Purlie Victorious Judson, alongside his wife Ruby Dee as Lutiebell Gussie Mae Jenkins. Now those roles are played by Leslie Odom, Jr., who won a Tony for his portrayal of Aaron Burr in Hamilton, and Kara Young, who was Tony-nominated two years in a row (probably soon to be three) for Clyde’s and Cost of Living.
Purlie is a reverend who returns to the Georgia plantation where he was raised, with a plan to buy back the church Big Bethel, where his grandfather preached. Purlie brings along the infatuated Lutiebell, so he can pass her off as his dead cousin Bee and trick Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders), the owner of the plantation, into giving "Bee" an inheritance that had been left in his care. Purlie is also aided by his brother Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones), Gitlow’s wife Missy (Heather Alicia Simms), Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s integrationist son Charlie (Noah Robbins), and Charlie’s childhood nurse Idella Landy (Vanessa Bell Calloway).
It is Odom’s face on both the poster and the Playbill, and he is certainly giving a star turn, once again bringing layers to a complex character. But this is more of an ensemble show than the show's marketing might suggest, and everyone in the cast makes an impression. Young has been reliably delivering strong performances for years now, but here she shows off her gift for screwball comedy in the type of performance that people will look back on as a true star being born. And as Gitlow, Jones masterfully and hilariously pulls off playing a character who is seemingly an “Uncle Tom,” but who is able to manipulate Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee better than anyone else.
(L-R) Jay O. Sanders, Billy Eugene Williams, Kara Young, and Leslie Odom, Jr. in Purlie Victorious. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
The design elements are also first rate, especially Derek McLane’s wood-paneled set, which easily and subtly transforms itself into multiple locations, and is enhanced by Adam Honoré’s lighting. As the play’s newly added subtitle states, it is a romp—with all the humor and silliness that phrase conjures—and it’s a testament to the writing and direction that the play is so entertaining without short-changing the serious topics it addresses. One of the many strengths of Davis's writing is the way it shows the different methods the Black characters have of standing up to their white oppressor, and that they are all valid.
The original production of Purlie Victorious ran for 261 performances (Martin Luther King, Jr. attended the 100th show). Let’s hope this production runs at least that long, if not longer.
(Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch plays at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, in an open-ended run (tickets are currently on sale through 1/7/24). The running time is 100 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2:30 and 7. Tickets are $40-$215.50 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For information on lottery and rush tickets, visit rush.telecharge.com. For more information visit purlievictorious.com.)
Purlie Victorious is by Ossie Davis. Directed by Kenny Leon. Set Design by Derek McLane. Costume Design by Emilio Sosa. Lighting Design by Adam Honoré. Sound Design by Peter Fitzgerald. Original Music by Guy Davis. Wig, Hair, and Makeup Design by J. Jared Janas. Fight Director is Thomas Schall. Production Stage Manager is Kamara A. Jacobs. Stage Manager is Benjamin E. C. Pfister.
The cast is Leslie Odom, Jr., Billy Eugene Jones, Jay O. Sanders, Heather Alicia Simms, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Noah Robbins, Noah Pyzik, Bill Timoney, and Kara Young. Understudies are Melvin Abston, Willa Bost, Brandi Porter, and Donald Webber Jr.