‘Purlie’ revives ‘Victorious’ Southern Confederacy on Broadway

The Playbill for “Purlie Victorious.”
The Playbill for “Purlie Victorious.”

There is a revival of Southern confederacy happening on Broadway.

Now in previews at the Music Box Theater, Sept. 27 starts regular performances of “Purlie Victorious” a production conceived in 1961 by playwright Ossie Davis.

Based on behavior he witnessed then, Davis showcased a geographic region where Uncle Tom submissive concessions overshadowed Black power revolutionary reactions.

Davis was born in 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia, where many Blacks were forced to pretend tolerance of the dominant white, population.

Needless to say, the territory accommodated bad behavior from plantation and slave holders.

By the time Davis relocated up south to Washington D.C. where he attended Howard University, he had developed a fully-formed image of acceptable, southern lifestyles.

From there he transitioned in 1939 to a theatrical career which indelibly imprints an impressive epitaph inscribed in 2005 when he died at age 87.

Revered as a writer, actor, director, playwright and Civil Rights activist, Davis’ presentation was first introduced to Broadway with his actress/bride Ruby Dee in the costarring role.

Since then, numerous iterations featured Robert Guillame, Cleavon Little, Melba Moore, Sherman Helmsley, Novella Nelson, Lillias White, Doug E. Doug, Blair Underwood, Anika Noni Rose, Clarice Taylor, Victoria Wilson James, and in 2023 director Kenny Leon has assembled a cast of characters that will further advance Davis’ concept.

The storyline follows Purlie Victorious Judson, a Black preacher who imagined change in the racist Cotchipee County in Georgia.

From a pulpit Purlie preached promise, hope and liberation to a congregation held hostage by a privileged and presumed entitled plantation owner.

Davis acted the principal role in 1961.

His pen also presented a feisty young woman named Lutibelle Gussie Mae Jenkins. Portrayed by Kara Young in this latest production, her unstinting belief in his gospel surpassed Biblical scriptures to resonate with loyalty involving a scam.

Singer Moore memorably recalled the country belle in 1970 when she starred in a musical version titled “Purlie.”

In this revival Leon presents comedic drama for a hilarious trek through Jim Crow territory.

Starring Leslie Odom Jr. in the title role, Billy Eugene Jones, an Uncle Tom character named Gitlow Judson, Missy Judson (Heather Alicia Simms), a whip-wielding, white, tyrant named Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders), his son Charlie ((Noah Robbins) and trusted helper Idella Landry (Vanessa Bell Calloway) there are challenges to overcome.

There is also an enabling sheriff (Bill Timoney) and his complicit deputy (Noah Pyzik) who acts as enforcers to the whims of the racist land owner.

Together they barter, trade, exploit and exhibit the foibles of a shameful generation tainted by the stain of racism, superiority, dominance and greed.

And in the process revisit Davis’ brilliant path to stardom by revealing his vision of reality during the years of confederate rule.

The dialogue is laughable yet sobering to the sensibilities of a post-Civil Rights era audience.

Like when Uncle Tom Gitlow responded to his boss’ inference of a lack of loyal ‘cotton-picking darkies’ saying “by the grace of God there’s a few of us still around.”

Slated for a limited run on Broadway, the play revisits a tour de force for the season. It runs 100 minutes without an intermission.

Catch You on the Inside!