‘Purlie Victorious’: Ossie Davis’s ‘Gospel to Humanity’ Returns to Broadway
The stars Leslie Odom Jr. and Kara Young and the director Kenny Leon discuss the revival, and why its satirical take on racism is still so timely.
Ossie Davis’s satirical play “Purlie Victorious” opened at the Cort Theater in September 1961 with Davis as the charismatic preacher Purlie Victorious Judson and Ruby Dee, his artistic collaborator and wife, playing Purlie’s green but soon-to-be-wise sidekick, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins. Six decades later, Leslie Odom Jr. (“Hamilton”) and Kara Young (“Clyde’s,” “Cost of Living”) are stepping into those roles in the play’s first Broadway revival, directed by Kenny Leon at the Music Box Theater.
Set in the 1940s on a plantation in the segregated South, the story follows Purlie’s return home to Georgia to claim a $500 inheritance, which he wants to use to buy and integrate the local church. To prevent Cap’n Cotchipee, the white plantation owner, from usurping his family’s birthright, Purlie has to trick Cotchipee — a plan that will also involve recruiting the unsuspecting Lutiebelle to stand in for his recently deceased Cousin Bee, who is the rightful inheritor of the money. In other words, Purlie’s strategy hinges on Cotchipee’s inability to differentiate one Black woman from another, and in so doing, the play uses comedy to expose racism as absurd, arbitrary and detrimental to Black life.
That pointed critique of racism, and Davis’s clever use of language, is why the play was so well received. “Although his good humor never falters,” the Times critic Howard Taubman wrote at the time, Davis “has made his play the vehicle for a powerful and passionate sermon.” It ran for nearly a year, and the activists W.E.B. Du Bois, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X all saw it. A film adaptation, “Gone Are the Days!,” followed in 1963, and then came the 1970 Broadway musical, “Purlie.”
Davis and Dee’s children, Nora Davis Day, Guy Davis and Hasna Muhammad, remember watching all of those versions. The siblings, who are the executors of their parents’ estate, had personal reasons for reviving the play. “It resonates with us because it is my dad’s specific language,” said Guy Davis, who composed the revival’s incidental music. “My sisters and I just wanted to revisit that part of our lives.”
“Purlie Victorious” itself was inspired by Davis’s childhood. “Dad grew up in the deepest part of Georgia, and had cause to be irate about the conditions there,” Day recalled. “He tried to write a play that was full of anger, vitriol, and righteousness, but it just didn’t work until he began to look at it and laugh and say, ‘This is ridiculous, that one group of people feels like they can control and own other people.’”
But Dee had reservations about Davis’s use of satire.
“She didn’t like it,” Muhammad said. “She thought it was stereotypical. How could he have these characters? And then he read it aloud to her, and then she was laughing and realized the power of the language and the value of the piece.”
Now Leon, Odom and Young say they are excited to share a work that they consider a classic with new audiences. During an interview last month before a rehearsal, they discussed their history with the play, the power of its satire and what it means to stage this production today. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did this production come about?
KENNY LEON Our producer Jeffrey Richards, whose mom [Helen Stern Richards] was the original company manager of the play and the general manager of the musical, began talking to me about this seven years ago. But I also spent time with Ossie and Ruby when they came to the rehearsals for my first Broadway show, “A Raisin in the Sun” [in 2004]. When Jeffrey approached me about possibly doing this on Broadway, I said, “I’m your guy,” because I love Ossie Davis. And I love this piece. I directed the musical [in 2008 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta]. It’s an exciting play and an outrageous comedy that is somewhere between rage and hope.
LESLIE ODOM Somebody had shoved the script in my hand as a young theater student. It was one of those plays that you should look at for an audition or a scene study class. The musical was also done in Philly when I was a kid, at the Freedom Theater, where I started acting as a 13-year-old.
LEON But Leslie is what made this production a possibility — being that anchor. I found out that he always loved the play, so to have him want to be in it and produce it with Jeffrey Richards made it a reality.
KARA YOUNG I was really surprised that Ossie Davis wrote a play like this. At that time, and this is just my imagination, because “A Raisin in the Sun” was so prolific, he really had the chance to change the world and the way that people thought about Black life. [Dee starred in the original 1959 Broadway production with Davis joining the cast later that year.] He dissected the absurdity of the social and racial structures of this world, and America in particular, and the legacy of slavery in this country. It is Ossie’s gospel to humanity. There are just so many amazing lines here that are the voices of a million people and a million spirits.
LEON I don’t want people to shortchange Ossie Davis’s craftsmanship and his writing an outrageous comedy that embraced different styles, like vaudeville, broad comedy, and a little bit of the drama from “A Raisin in the Sun.” Look at this penmanship, poetry, movement and song. Many times, I think for an African American work, they have a different set of rules to gauge its greatness. But this soars as a true work of art.
How do you think it will land at this moment?
ODOM I’m curious, too. When I think about the last incredible experience I had in this town with a piece of work [“Hamilton”], and I think that if that piece of work had been written five years before, it might not have done the thing. So, I am excited to discover why now, and I am along for the ride.
YOUNG I feel like the timing is almost perfect.
LEON We were talking earlier about how every generation has to fight for democracy. We have to fight for true freedom and beauty, and what better time to be reminded of that than right now as we engage in the 2024 election? As we think about those things that Ossie Davis talks about, we got to stay in truth.
YOUNG And remember our history.
LEON What’s that line Purlie says? “Give us a piece of the Constitution.”
ODOM “We want our cut of the Constitution and we want it now: and not with no little teaspoon, white folks. Throw it at us with a shovel.”
How do you balance the play’s humor and its politics?
ODOM It’s a romp. It’s a real hoot. We’re having a ball. As joyful and as light-filled as this experience is, he realized it was too painful to ask an audience to sit through it. It’s already an act of great generosity and grace that he decided to put it together in this way. He wanted us to be able to witness these people that he grew up with, this country that he grew up in, this farm that he knew so well, but he wanted you to be able to stand it and to tolerate it.
LEON We’re telling it in a joyous way and dealing with some real stuff.
YOUNG There are just so many gems about the violence of our just existing. There is a line I said the other day that reminds me of gentrification. Lutiebelle says, “The whole thing was a trip to get you out of the house.” I’m a Harlemite, and I’ve been feeling the violence of gentrification for years. I know that’s not what the play is about, but these things are dropped in the story, and because it is so dramaturgically sound, they can live on their own.
LEON That’s so beautiful because that, to me, is what artists are supposed to do. We’re supposed to revisit the work from the previous generation and say, “How does that relate to me now?” I treat revivals like they’re new plays. Everything about being American, definitely about being Black in America, you can find in his play.
Is that why you changed the structure from three to two acts, without an intermission?
LEON I read plays five times to inform me of what I will do with them. After the fifth reading, I came away with the idea that it is about getting to that last page and scene. And getting to that last scene meant it’s about the rhythm of what’s happening onstage and people in the audience not thinking about time. I don’t want the outside world to come in. I just want them to get lost in this world.
Kara and Leslie, what is it like to invoke the spirit of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis onstage?
YOUNG I’m a huge fan of Ruby, oddly also as a Harlemite. Ruby and Ossie are great examples of what it means to be organizers and activists and to be a force of change. But what it means to step into a role that Ruby Dee originated, I can’t quite put that into language. But this is also a role about a young woman and her journey, about finding a sense of self and her importance in the world for the first time and standing in that. It feels like a very universal story for a Black girl.
ODOM The thing about these drama schools around the country is that they train you in the classics. My training prepared me for this. But I think my responsibility as an artist is to choose the projects that I’m a part of thoughtfully, collaborate with people that I respect, and work on things at the highest level. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing. It takes a while to get there. We’re doing this play as written in 1961, but people will be so surprised at how hip it is and how much it stands up. The more we learn, the more we build trust with Mr. Davis and his words. It rises to support us.
How do you want people to feel after leaving “Purlie Victorious”?
LEON That this feels like a new play. I think that’s what Ossie would want: us to introduce this to live human beings whose lives are affected daily.
YOUNG The irony of racism. When you really break it down, the construct of racism is just really absurd. But, even in those power structures, these characters need each other. We need each other.
ODOM Recently, I read Clint Smith’s book “How the Word Is Passed.” He paints a more honest picture of chattel slavery and the truth of that in this country. “Nostalgia is a fantasy about the past using no facts,” he says. “And somewhere in between is memory, which is kind of this blend of history and a little bit of emotion.” Man, did that strike me. I want this “Purlie” to feel like a memory. I hope that it feels like the facts need emotion.