Light and weather stream through the gaps in the slats of the shack where Purlie Victorious Judson was born.
Late in Ossie Davis’s play Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, Derek McLane’s set transforms from this forlorn shack into the community church, Big Bethel. Purlie has been fighting the whole play to buy back this barn where generations have worshipped together.
When the literal roof rises on Big Bethal on stage, you will not notice the shabby walls any longer because it becomes a vessel of all of Purlie’s hopes and dreams.
In that moment, I thought of theory of Gothic architecture and cathedrals. The idea was with new techniques of engineering they could create spaces where congregants would feel the presence of God. Soaring ceilings, sparkling decoration, and delicate stained glass allowed for divine light to be seen and felt.
Here, with only a simple cross and no further adornment, the rising rafters of Big Bethal fill the stage with that divine light.
Big Bethel is not just a pulpit for Purlie to preach freedom from but owning it is a reclamation of history and power. This is land he has taken back from the white landowner who has kept this Black community under his thumb as if emancipation never happened. “Tradition,” the repressive landowner calls it.
Set in “the recent past” in the segregated South, Purlie Victorious (Leslie Odom Jr.) has returned to his family’s town which is controlled by Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee (Jay O. Sanders). Cap’n owns all the land and everyone works for him. They are trapped in a cycle of debt with the Cap’n which they cannot escape from. So, while technically slavery has ended, Purlie calls this new peonage slavery as well.
Twenty years ago, Purlie was beaten with a bullwhip by Cap’n (Cap’n still carries it around today). He has vowed since then that he would return and get his revenge on Cap’n. There is an inheritance owed to a late Cousin Bee. Cap’n is holding onto it.
Purlie, his brother Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones) and sister-in-law Missy (Heather Alicia Simms) have a plan. They think if they can find someone to impersonate Cousin Bee maybe the Cap’n will hand over the money and they can buy back Big Bethel.
He has brought with him a wide-eyed acolyte from Alabama, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Kara Young) who wants to help him. Lutiebelle is an orphan maid who has never been on such an adventure but is mesmerized by Purlie. She agrees to his scheme until she finds out she is meant to impersonate a college girl which sends her into a total panic.
Davis’s 1961 satirical play dives right in to explore Uncle Tomism, the abuse of Black women by white men, and the corruption of segregated South. It pits a fast-talking con man driven by righteousness against an ole boy of the South leaning on his control of the institutions around him to preserve his ill-gotten power.
The success of the play on the page and in this production, directed by Kenny Leon, comes from striking the right tone. The seriousness of the underlying issues is always present alongside the comedic gloss. We are laughing while seeing the darkness in all the humor.
When Purlie has gone off to possibly confront Cap’n and faces insurmountable odds, Lutiebelle says “Didn’t Lord deliver Daniel?”, and Gitlow replies “Of course he did—but lions is one thing and white folks is another!”
These characters have seen the worst of white people and faith has its limits. We know the cultural, political, and historic backdrop this is happening against. The bullwhip hanging on stage is a very specific object of Purlie’s trauma and a much larger symbol of America’s history of slavery. Yet, Davis’s wise-cracking characters delicately skate along this historic thin ice and we cannot help but be carried by their buoyancy.
It is a strong ensemble all around. Though for my tastes, Leslie Odom Jr. soars highest when preaching, moving with a melodic cadence, or in the quietest moments of reflection than in the frenetic, comedic farcical ones when he tends to be less precise. Jay O. Sanders is a pitch-perfect, discomforting abusive white man in power.
Kara Young, meanwhile, steals the show. When she is called to perform as Fake Cousin Bee, she is a woman possessed. Like a computer program that is glitching, she moves on stage as if these two identities cannot be integrated, so one burst out over the other. While she has got her dainty hat and high heels, her nervousness sends her limbs into a melee. Lutiebelle’s brain cannot keep up with Purlie’s scheme and all sorts of nonsense begins to spill out of her mouth. But she is trying so hard to hold it all together. It’s a delight.
Yet, for all the laughs, social critique, and quality side-eye the play throws, the moments of reflection on Blackness and Black culture are what I carried home with me. It was an articulation of self-love that feels all too rare.