Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

‘OPENING NIGHT’ REVIEW – SHERIDAN SMITH’S BOOZY MELTDOWN SHAKES UP MUSICAL THEATRE ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/26; Photo: Sheridan Smith in Opening Night.  Photograph: Jan Versweyveld.)

Gielgud Theatre, London
Smith plays a Broadway star in the midst of a mental crisis in Ivo van Hove and Rufus Wainwright’s glittering and extravagantly original musical adaptation of the Cassavetes film

John Cassavetes’ 1977 film about a Broadway star in crisis might seem a natural fit for a stage adaptation. Then again, there is the risk of theatrical navel-gazing, and with its melange of gothicism, midlife angst and thespy drama, an odd narrative arc to navigate.

To throw songs into the mix – composed by Rufus Wainwright in his first foray into musical theatre – and swap the glacial queenliness of Gena Rowlands, who played troubled superstar Myrtle in the film, for the insuppressibly likable Sheridan Smith, might have been a step too far. Even for a writer-director with as much appetite for high-wire risk as Ivo van Hove.

Yet Opening Night is an extravagantly original production, every bit as eccentric as the film but also its own alchemical creation, more vivacious in this musical incarnation.

The trope of the brittle older woman in crisis is well worn, and Myrtle – an ageing alcoholic actor in meltdown over playing an even more ageing actor on stage – sits squarely alongside Blanche DuBois and Norma Desmond. We follow her as she is stalked by the ghost of a dead young fan, Nancy (Shira Haas), and contends with the desolations of stardom as well as the controlling men around her: Manny (Hadley Fraser), the play-within-the-play’s director who goes from charmer to bully in seconds; producer David (John Marquez); and former lover Maurice (Benjamin Walker).

But there is counterintuitive casting in Smith, who does not strive for Rowlands’ unreachability or dangerous magnetism. Instead her Myrtle has an earthbound glamour and a celebrity honed from hard graft, it seems, with a Brooklyn accent combined with a touch of Elizabeth Taylor. Smith brings vulnerability, even flecks of comedy, and makes Myrtle’s crisis modern, relatable – that of a woman wanting to age on her own terms.

There is compassionate treatment of the drama’s other midlife women too, from scriptwriter Sarah (Nicola Hughes, absolutely arresting) to Manny’s longsuffering wife Dorothy (Amy Lennox), who ruminate marital disappointment or menopausal hot flushes with disgruntled strength.

A film crew follow the fictive play’s rehearsals in a Broadway theatre, and a back screen gestures towards their captured footage. Jan Versweyveld’s set has a central sheer red curtain that captures the razzle of the theatre but also implicates our culture of celebrity voyeurism. There are many moving parts on stage, yet none of it feels like a churn.

The screen magnifies characters so we see their bloodshot eyes and tears. When Myrtle turns up drunk at the stage door on opening night, the screen shows her staggering at the back of the Gielgud theatre itself, a thrilling coup de hi-tech theatre which resembles the walk-about in Jamie Lloyd’s recent Sunset Boulevard but services the story better here. (Smith has said it attracts the passing crowd every night.)

The warmth of the production is counterintuitive too. Its tone is almost upbeat, but without clashing against Myrtle’s core anguish. Much of that is down to Wainwright’s slowly gorgeous music. The early songs have a springy, Chorus Line sound while later ones are full-bodied and tender with an edge of the operatic, bringing heat and intimacy to the drama.

Songs such as Meet Me at the Start, in which Myrtle confesses her love to Maurice, open up the show’s heart, while the soaring Ready for Battle, marking Myrtle’s comeback, turns her from a woman falling apart to one soldiering on, and raises hairs.

(Read more)

AN ENEMY OF CHANGE/ THOMAS OSTERMEIER’S ‘AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE’ (U.K.) ·

(Ruby Harbour’s article appeared in the Ecologist, 3/13/2024. Photo: production PR.)

Thomas Ostermeier’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ puts one of the most important messages of our time on centre stage.

Matt Smith is starring in Thomas Ostermeier’s staging of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 comedy ‘An Enemy of the People’ at the Duke of York theatre in Covent Garden, London until Saturday, 13 April 2024. 

My initial interest in attending the production was peaked by the prospect of seeing a Doctor Who right before my eyes, but I soon found the play carries one of the most important messages of our time.

Doctor Thomas Stockmann discovers evidence that the town’s water supply has been contaminated. The audience watches as Stockmann painstakingly wrecks havoc on his friends, his family and himself in order to reveal the truth. And his struggle is all too real.

Chaos

The livelihoods of the people in the town depend on the existence of the baths – and therefore the water supply. People are drawn into the town due to the healing properties of them, bringing money and generating a wealthy tourist destination. 

When Stockmann wants to uncover the truth about the contaminated waters, those around him, including his controlling and manipulative brother, Peter Stockmann (Paul Hilton), do everything in their power to shut him down.

His wife Katherina Stockmann, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, is confronted with financial burdens and the loneliness of taking the majority of the responsibility of caring for their baby. 

Stockmann is infuriating in his efforts to support his wife, for the determination to provide the town with the truth takes over like flames through a dry forest. The chaos and messiness on stage is a fitting reflection of our current societal and environmental issues.

The most pivotal and poignant part of the play is Stockmann’s’ dramatic monologue. It is guaranteed to captivate the audience as he sheds light on the reality of our democracy. 

Dissent

He refers to the failures of our government, pointing at the inability to prioritise climate action, and responds to, as Matt Smith says in an interview with Laura Kuenssberg, “so much disinformation and misinformation” by exclaiming “it is not a cost of living crisis, it’s an inequality crisis!”

The fictional drama and the all too real truths intersect in the latter half of the play when the audience becomes a ‘council room’. Aslaksen, played by Priyanga Burford, stands in front of the stage and invites the audience to vote for whether they agree with the sentiments of Stockmann’s speech. 

The majority of the audience were in favour but when asked to expand on their reasons only a few shy hands began to raise. Passion and determinism then grew as the members of the public had the chance to say their piece. One person asked “can we talk about Alexei Navalny?”, the Russian opposition leader who died earlier in February. Dissent is dangerous in Russia. 

(Read more)

 

***** ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ REVIEW – A DEEPLY AFFECTING TAKE ON ARTHUR MILLER’S AMERICAN CLASSIC ·

(Nick Ahad’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/10/2024. Magnetic … Anoushka Lucas and Simon Manyonda in The Crucible at Crucible, Sheffield.  Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Crucible, Sheffield
Director Anthony Lau brings his fiercely rigorous intellect to bear on this intensely felt love story, with standout performances from Simon Manyonda and Anoushka Lucas

There is a particular quality to the silence that descends on the Crucible theatre when all dramatic elements in that unique space are operating at their most taut.

Whether it’s O’Sullivan bending to the baize to sink a black for another 147, or a more deliberately created drama, there is a heaviness to the silence that can envelop the place, a silence the audience are complicit in creating, as they hold a collective breath.

Rarely have I felt such a heavy stillness or such an intense concentration, than that which the audience brought to Anthony Lau’s take on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

As associate artistic director at Sheffield Theatres, Lau has brought a fiercely rigorous intellect to his productions on this stage. From a psychedelic Anna Karenina, to a playful The Good Person of Szechwan, he refuses to patronise his audience, demanding we work to understand his purpose, evidenced again here with Miller’s 1953 American classic.

The play opens with the stage populated by microphones and the auditorium fully lit for a significant portion of the opening scene. There is a lightbox hanging above the stage giving us a moment of pause – we’re inside the theatre, but the display with the word “Crucible” looks the same as the one outside. Lau appears to be asking us to consider that we’re not just in the Crucible (theatre), but we are also in The Crucible (play). We are complicit in the action.

(Read more)

***** ‘UNCLE VANYA’ REVIEW – TREVOR NUNN TRIUMPHS WITH CHEKHOV’S TRAGICOMEDY ·

(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/8; Near deranged … James Lance as Vanya. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Orange Tree theatre, London
This chamber staging, movingly played by an immaculate ensemble, fits perfectly with the drama’s hothouse of disappointment

At 84, Sir Trevor Nunn is making his first attempt at Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov’s 1899 tragicomedy of turgid work and hopeless love on a failing rural Russian estate. Familiar with the largest stages – having run both the National Theatre and the RSC – Nunn is working in one of the smallest, Richmond’s Orange Tree, although it would be an injustice if this version ends there.

The minimalist space brings one immediate gain. Frequent references to the characters living suffocatingly together often seem fanciful in vast auditoria. Chekhov’s reputation can command, but here theatregoers nervously tuck their feet in as the eight actors drink, dance, duel and kiss within touching distance. So rawly authentic are the lines and looks that it feels as if we have somehow tuned into a late 19th-century Russian TV documentary.

A tangibly oppressive atmosphere, with lighting by Johanna Town and sound by Max Pappenheim, is defined by liquids craved (tea, vodka) and unwanted (tears, sweat, rain). Always alert to physical and historical detail, Nunn here makes hair, in an era and region short of salons, almost a subplot. Only a bald man – William Chubb as the desiccated academic Professor Serebryakov – looks neat, more hirsute fellows sporting wild spirals that appear self-hacked while they were half-cut. The women have long locks either flowing, braided, bunned, netted or scarved.

Other productions have been starrier in individual roles, but Nunn has drawn an immaculate ensemble. James Lance’s scathing, near-deranged Vanya still hints at the underlying spirit and intelligence that boredom and booze erode daily. Madeleine Gray makes Sonya’s naive and cheery demeanour a mask that heartbreakingly fractures. In this play, Chekhov most draws on his experience as a doctor, with plot twists involving gout, depression, alcoholism and morphine. Coutured and costumed to resemble the playwright, the Dr Astrov of Andrew Richardson, who made a dazzling professional stage debut as Sky Masterson in the Bridge’s Guys and Dolls, impresses as a physician destroying his body while inflaming women’s.

(Read more)

***** ‘A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM’ REVIEW – CHARACTERS MASH, WORLDS INVERT AND FLAMES BURST FROM FINGERS ·

(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/14, 2024; Drawing a younger audience … Mathew Baynton as Bottom and Pyramus. Photograph: Pamela Raith.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Eleanor Rhode’s ravishing fusion of flamboyancy, surrealism and raucous fun rouses audiences in a youthful, energetic riot

Directors of Shakespeare’s comedy of aristocrats, artisans and sprites getting confused in a wood often seem influenced by one title word. Midsummer stagings are light and magical, Night shows rather darker. Eleanor Rhode’s RSC revival is driven by Dream, crucially incorporating the sub-categories of nightmare and erotic fantasy, including the rather niche reverie of sex with a donkey.

Characters mash, worlds invert, flames burst from fingers, people move backwards (inflecting Tenet and Christopher Nolan’s dreamscape movie Inception), and surreal moments include one that resembles an explosion in a children’s indoor play pit.

Bally Gill’s charismatic doubling of Athenian Duke Theseus and faery king Oberon – matched by Sirine Saba’s sparky pairing of Hippolyta and faery queen Titania – strongly suggest that what we are seeing in the wood scenes is the nocturnal consequence of a big Greek pre-wedding dinner. In this reading, the elf Puck – athletically and musically played by Premi Tamang, replacing Rosie Sheehy, indisposed on press night – becomes a Freudian blurring of daughters, lovers and childhood fairytales.

The non-dream scenes are also strikingly earthy. In the workers’ play-within-the-play, Shakespeare, in casting someone as a Wall, enjoys joking about what the “hole” in such a barrier might be, but this production doubles down on the entendre. Emily Cundick’s Snout / Wall and Mathew Baynton’s Bottom / Pyramus will have required the ingenuity of the credited intimacy directors.

(Read more)

 

***** ‘TILL THE STARS COME DOWN’ REVIEW – YOUR INVITATION TO THE WEDDING OF THE YEAR ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/1/2024; Photo: Heady … Black as Hazel with Derek Riddell as John. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Dorfman theatre, London

Beth Steel’s new drama is dazzlingly performed and full of pain, joy and laughter in a deft production by Bijan Sheibani

Awedding day is fertile ground for a family drama but is also riddled with the risk of cliches: drunken flirting, face-offs between estranged siblings, awkward aunts and, of course, an 11th-hour dress crisis.

Beth Steel’s play has them all, so how is it that it seems spun in gold, the earthy humour tingling with originality, the canvas both big and small and the larger-than-life characters dazzlingly performed and bouncing to life before us in pain, joy, and laughter?

Sylvia (Sinéad Matthews), one of a trio of sisters, is getting married to Polish Marek (Marc Wootton), who is welcomed into the family fold reluctantly. In Mansfield, a former pit town which has a newly arrived eastern European population, those tensions run organically alongside the human drama. Steel’s previous plays were also set in the same deindustrialised East Midlands landscape, but more often explored the politics around its former coalminers and their families. This play brings the women blazingly to the fore.

They are all forces of nature, from Sylvia’s sisters, Maggie (Lisa McGrillis) and Hazel (Lucy Black), to their fantastically gobby aunt Carol (Lorraine Ashbourne). They are broadly drawn, but distinct enough to become real and endearing. You feel part of the wedding, investing in the characters and their emotional lives.

The fathers, uncles and love interests are all off stage at first, while these women get ready for the big day. They drink Buck’s Fizz, bitch about next door’s hot-tub (“sex pond”), and talk in vivid demotic (“I don’t know my arsehole from my fanny this morning,” says Carol). This opening scene alone is a masterclass in multi-layered conversational naturalism.

(Read more)

‘DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES’ REVIEW – 60s MARITAL DRAMA BECOMES BROADWAY MUSICAL WINNER ·

(Lauren Mechling’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/29; Photo:  Brian d’Arcy James  and Kelli O’Hara/Photograph: Joan Marcus.)

Studio 54, New York

Song-heavy adaptation of the bruising 1962 Blake Edwards drama about a couple grappling with addiction makes for a surprising success

It’s probably a good thing there’s no intermission in Days of Wine and Roses, the musical adaptation of Blake Edwards’s 1962 film. The harrowing and hugely captivating Broadway production wastes no time diving into the toll that alcoholism takes on married couple Kirsten and Joe Clay, and it’s doubtful any audience member would be inclined to pony up for a mid-show sippy cup of Chardonnay. Director Michael Greif’s production is shot through with heartache and hangovers, and worth all the squirming in your seat.

Twenty-one years in the making, this version of the classic starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick incorporates music that manages to underscore the mood without watering down the story’s intensity. The songbook (music and lyrics by Adam Guettel) is full of minor keys and suffused with a darkness that is rare for a star-studded Broadway extravaganza (Kelli O’Hara and Brian d’Arcy James carry the show). No matter how gorgeous the voice of O’Hara – who sings the majority of the tunes – nobody bursts into a larger-than-life medley. (Though a bouffant and bombed Kirsten’s manic and musical vacuum cleaning session comes pretty close.)

The script and songs bleed into one another, with plenty of opera-like sing-talking that strikes a smart and serious tone. For all their sophistication, these numbers are low-slung and moody, and likely won’t appear on your favorite Peloton instructor’s upcoming Showtunes-themed playlist.

Korean war vet turned PR dynamo Joe (played by James, who inhabits his role with mid-century machismo) meets spritely and initially Sprite-sipping Kirsten at a work event. When we first lay eyes on Joe, he is aboard a booze cruise filled with the smorgasbord of comely women he has arranged for his bosses’ pleasure. He homes in on the innocent and beautiful executive assistant.

(Read more)

KRAPP’S LAST TAPE REVIEW – STEPHEN REA IS HAUNTINGLY GOOD IN BECKETT’S MASTERPIECE ·

(Helen Meany’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/19; Photo: ‘Minute flickers of emotion’ … Stephen Rea in Krapp’s Last Tape, directed by Vicky Featherstone, at Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Photograph: Patricio Cassinoni.)

PROJECT ARTS CENTRE, DUBLIN

There isn’t a hint of sentimentality in Vicky Featherstone’s delicately calibrated production of Samuel Beckett’s monologue about mortality

Making his annual tape recording on the eve of his birthday, Krapp (Stephen Rea) lingers over words, as if English is not his first language. “Spool. Spooooool,” he pronounces, as he searches for reels of tape recorded in years past. Reminding us that Samuel Beckett wrote many of his works in French, it is one of a number of tiny, clever touches in Vicky Featherstone’s production.

Beckett’s celebrated play from 1958 is so precisely composed in its interplay of language, movement and silence that any new variations tend to be all in the detail. As the 69-year-old Krapp listens to tape recordings of his younger self, he pauses and interjects. Rea’s eyes register minute flickers of emotion, his years of performing to camera adding a subtlety that seems effortless.

Bemused by the confident delivery of the 39-year-old on tape, Krapp mocks his younger self’s artistic ambition. As he berates himself for his lack of achievement in the intervening years, Rea brings a harsh, almost sarcastic tone to his self-criticism, deepening its pathos. Not only does Krapp feel like a failure but he has to kick himself about it as well.

(Read more)

‘IS MY PLAY STILL RELEVANT? I DON’T CARE!’ TOM STOPPARD ON HIS GAZA QUANDARY AND REVIVING ROCK ’N’ ROLL ·

(Claire Armitstead’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/29 Photo:  Power couple … Stoppard and Vaclav Havel attending Rock ’n’ Roll at the Royal Court in 2006. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images.)

As his Velvet Revolution drama returns, the great writer talks about his mounting Israel-Gaza uncertainties, the epiphanies he has in every hot shower – and our one-star ‘corker’ review of The Crown

Tom Stoppard is chatting in the theatre bar when I arrive to interview him about a revival of his play Rock ’n’ Roll. He was comparing ailments with an elderly director friend, he says cheerfully, as he heads up the stairs, having declined an offer of the lift. At 86 he has the nonchalant elegance of a spy in a cold war thriller, lean and mop-haired in a discreetly expensive-looking coat.

Though Stoppard is feted around the world for some of the cleverest plays of the last 60 years, as well as the Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, he is more gossipy than grand. “I said to him,” he reports of the conversation from which he has just been dragged away, “I’m being interviewed by the Guardian in half an hour and it’s supposed to be about Rock ’n’ Roll, but I’m going to have to have an opinion about Gaza, aren’t I?”

Would I have been a dissenter, or someone who kept his nose clean? I’ve a terrible feeling it would have been the latter

Being canvassed for opinions comes with the territory for a playwright whose identity straddles two of the biggest faultlines of 20th century history. His most recent play, Leopoldstadt, was a monumental reckoning with a Jewish heritage of which he only became aware in middle age. It ended with Leo, one of three survivors of a mighty dynasty, returning after the war to a Vienna of which he had no memory, having adopted his stepfather’s surname and lived in England since infancy.

Stoppard himself settled in England and adopted his stepfather’s name when he was eight, though his early childhood was spent not in Austria but Czechoslovakia. Rock ’n’ Roll, which premiered at the Royal Court in 2006, contains a different reckoning: what if, instead of getting remarried to an Englishman after the death of Stoppard’s doctor father in the war against Japan, his mother had returned to Soviet Czechoslovakia with him and his brother? “I thought I could write a play which was about myself as I imagined my life might have been from the age of eight,” he says. “And then I would find out whether I was brave enough to be a dissenter, or just somebody who would keep his head down and his nose clean. And I have a terrible feeling that it would have been the latter.”

Rock ’n’ Roll takes place between the viciously suppressed Prague Spring protests of 1968 and the period just after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which put an end to four decades of communist rule and saw the Rolling Stones bring 100,000 fans out for a historic concert in Prague in 1990. The play is framed as a decades-long argument between Jan, a Cambridge PhD student who goes back to Czechoslovakia in 1968, only to become badly disillusioned and nostalgic for the freedoms of the west, and his English professor, Max, who remains a Marxist idealist.

Along the way it takes in the poetry of Sappho, the music of the Stones, Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Czech rock group the Plastic People of the Universe, whose arrest at a rock festival in 1976 was one of the inspirations behind the human rights protest Charter 77. The play is dedicated to Stoppard’s friend Václav Havel, who went on to become president of the country in 1989.

Ever since he made his stage debut with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1966, new Stoppard plays have been an event. Havel, Mick Jagger and the Plastic People were among the audience for the Royal Court premiere of Rock ’n’ Roll, along with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, though sadly not Barrett, its wayward Pan figure, who died days after the play opened.

Why revive it now? Even then, it was a history play, he says. “Plays don’t become dated, they become a period, and that’s all to the good.” There’s the small matter that he hasn’t been moved to write anything new in the four years since Leopoldstadt. This is a rare visit to London from the Dorset cottage where he lives with his third wife, Sabrina Guinness. “I’m busy the whole time, but I’ve been completely unproductive,” he says. “And you know, I may have stopped without realising it.”

(Read more)

 

“PURLIE VICTORIOUS” HUSTLES FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE ·

(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.

(Read more)