(Vinson Cunningham’s article appeared in The New Yorkers, 9/30; Odom plays each of Purlie’s notes with a musician’s tonal perfection. Illustration by Amrita Marino.)
Sophisticated comedic turns from Leslie Odom, Jr., and Kara Young guide Kenny Leon’s Broadway revival of Ossie Davis’s 1961 play.
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.