Has there ever been a more outrageous, rambunctious, over-the-top and, in the end, downright joyous production of a play staged on Broadway? Oh, to be able to go back to the opening night in 1961 at the Cort Theatre of Ossie Davis’ “Purlie Victorious,” starring the playwright and his wife, Ruby Dee. The play ran a very respectable 261 performances, but hasn’t received a major commercial production, much less a Broadway revival, since then.
Now comes Kenny Leon’s wild staging of Davis’ comedy about a wily preacher who has a scheme to get some inheritance money out of a nasty plantation owner to help save the town’s church in the Old South. Leon and his inspired ensemble make up for all that lost time and then some.
I haven’t seen a production of a play strike a comparably over-the-top, joyous chord since the heyday of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company down in Greenwich Village in the 1970s and ’80s. Leon has his own unique background to draw inspiration for directing this play. I have my background of seeing everything from “Camille” to “Galas” at Ludlam’s company, and I find a tenuous but, for me, a curiously fertile common ground between what Ludlam did and what Leon is doing here with Davis’ “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch,” which opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre.
Ludlam took Broadway and Hollywood tropes created by straight people and turned them inside out to expose the inherent homophobia. With his “Purlie Victorious,” Davis took Broadway and Hollywood tropes created by white people and turned them inside out to expose the inherent racism. Leon’s direction pushes those colorful but cardboard characters over the edge to create a comic riot.
Audiences will know Leslie Odom Jr. from his Tony-winning turn as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.” Nothing there will prepare you for his comic timing, as well as the mega-size of Odom’s performance here. Some enterprising producer should be gearing up a much-needed first Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “King Hedley II” for this gifted actor.
As big and wonderful as Odom is playing Purlie, he sometimes recedes in the brighter-than-lightning presence of Kara Young’s star-making turn as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, whom the preacher dupes into impersonating a dead relative in order to get the inheritance money. While Odom is being powerful, Young is just plain quirky to the point of being anarchic. Although her voice is an octave or two lower than that of Butterfly McQueen, Young recalls that legendary actor who remained resilient and tough despite being saddled with nothing but simpering domestic roles. Young’s Lutiebelle triumphs by subverting everyone else’s sense of logic, and that includes Purlie’s.
Other relationships in this production also dazzle. Jay O. Sanders’ racist plantation owner alternates between brutal and very funny in his ego-massaging encounters with the faithful servant Gitlow, played to perfection by Billy Eugene Jones, who has clearly studied every film Stepin Fetchit ever made.
Even more intriguing is the plantation owner’s son, Charlie (Noah Robbins), who has miraculously escaped his father’s belligerence, thanks to the life-long watch of a loving caregiver, Idella (Vanessa Bell Calloway). Robbins and Calloway are so good in their portrayals that they almost make us take these characters seriously — until we realize that they represent stereotypes that have been perpetuated only to assuage the guilty and that, in the end, define the word “whitewash.”
(The Charlie role, by the way, gave Alan Alda his first major Broadway credit. Now, Alda is one of the more than 20 producers behind this Broadway revival of “Purlie Victorious.”)
Davis and Ludlam both possessed a real flair for the outrageous, but they end up in different places. Ludlam’s aggressive sense of irony was unyielding. Davis, after entertaining us with memorably flamboyant characters, turns to agitprop, but keeps his sense of wicked humor intact. Despite all his sermonizing, Purlie never turns into a pedagogue, thanks to Davis, who has loaded the preacher’s speeches with great one-liners and epigrams — none of which will be repeated here. They need to be experience first-hand in the theater.
“Purlie Victorious” is the funniest show now performing on Broadway, and that includes “The Book of Mormon.”