Two years before he made his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. attended the 100th performance of “Purlie Victorious” at the Cort Theater on Broadway. He knew the playwright, Ossie Davis, and his wife, Ruby Dee, from their work in the civil rights movement.
Now the couple were starring in Davis’s raucous comedy about a stem-winding Black preacher from Georgia. It would not have been lost on the stem-winding King, likewise from Georgia, that he and “Purlie Victorious” had something in common. They were, after all, in the same fight against racism — in the play’s case by laughing it to death.
And yet, did it die? If it did, why are we still laughing?
The “Purlie Victorious” that opened on Wednesday at the Music Box — unaccountably its first Broadway revival — is every bit as scathingly funny as the 1961 reviews said it was. (In The New York Times, Howard Taubman called it “exhilarating,” “uninhibited” and “uproarious,” all in the first three paragraphs.) But even though times have surely changed — for one thing, the Cort Theater is now the James Earl Jones — everything dark in the play is still dark, and the lightness no less necessary. There’s a reason the setting, however old-timey it may appear on the surface, is still called “the recent past.”
Kenny Leon’s thrillingly broad and warp-speed production aims to keep us in both time zones at once. To do so he begins on a note of contemporary welcome as the actors walk onstage companionably to don the jackets and aprons they’ll wear in the play, as if they’d just come from the street. Among them, Leslie Odom Jr. instantly stands out, not just for the spiffy suit he’s wearing (the terrific costumes are by Emilio Sosa) but also for his wolfish impatience to get going. His Purlie, we sense, will be more than a preacher: He will be a prosecutor.
Two thefts are in his sights. One is perhaps a petty larceny: The $500 left to Purlie’s Aunt Henrietta by the white woman in whose home she worked has not come rightfully into his hands. Instead, with Henrietta and her daughter, Cousin Bee, both dead, the sum has been waylaid by Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, the owner of the cotton plantation on which Purlie grew up with his brother, Gitlow (Billy Eugene Jones). Though a pittance to the rich Ol’ Cap’n (Jay O. Sanders), the $500 is a fortune to Purlie, who plans to use it to buy and restore Big Bethel church, where his grandfather once preached. He wants his inheritance in both senses, the cash and the pulpit.
The other theft, at the heart of the play’s power and yet also its comedy, is much larger: the theft of the freedom of generations of Black Americans.
It was a practical yet risky choice to weld the outrage over one to the farce of the other. And make no mistake, starting with the subtitle (“A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch”), Davis’s farce is full-throttle, blending lowbrow physical humor straight out of vaudeville with traditions of Black satire and classic social comedy like “Pygmalion.” So when Purlie recruits “a common scullion” named Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins to impersonate the college-educated Bee and claim the inheritance, you know something will go vastly wrong. Indeed, bedazzled by the preacher’s attention and overwhelmed by the job, Lutiebelle starts to improvise, leading the plan cartoonishly awry.
Originally played by Dee, and now by Kara Young, Lutiebelle is a rich creation, sweet and hungry, down-home and dirty. Young, a two-time Tony nominee known mostly for dramatic roles (“Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven,” “The New Englanders,” “All the Natalie Portmans”), is also a daring comedian, finding in Lutiebelle a cross between Lucille Ball and Moms Mabley. That she is not afraid to go as far as the part can take her — with a gawky pigeon-toed gait and hilariously lustful line readings in a taffy-pulled Southern accent — is a sign of the freedom the play gives her (and everyone else) to represent a character instead of a race.
As a result, some touchy old stereotypes, appropriated by whites and perverted as minstrelsy, are reclaimed and reframed. Gitlow’s shucking and jiving is, in Jones’s performance, very clearly a performance itself: a way of getting around the obtuseness of overlords. His wife, Missy, played by Heather Alicia Simms, turns classic one-dimensional stage sass into complicated warmth. Vanessa Bell Calloway’s Idella, a cook who works for Ol’ Cap’n and might in other contexts be framed as a Mammy figure, here has a freedom fighter’s acuity. And even Ol’ Cap’n himself, the snarling villain of the piece, is taken down gently: “Put kindness in your fingers,” Purlie instructs a pallbearer. “He was a man — despite his own example.”
But it’s Odom who carries the play’s weight as it shifts from genre to genre and reveals further layers of character. Part of the freedom Davis took for himself, and that Leon emphasizes in his staging, is the right to be many things at once, not all of them reputable.
Odom, with the angry intensity of his Burr from “Hamilton,” does not shy from Purlie’s scoundrelly side, his willingness to lie, even to loved ones, as a means of putting down a marker on eventual truth. And yet when it comes time to preach, watch out. The way he winds speeches into sermons and sermons nearly into songs makes it seem natural that “Purlie Victorious,” written partly in blank verse, would be turned into a musical. It nearly was one already.
Was it also a loving dig at the great orator himself? Davis disagreed with King about nonviolence but could hardly dispute his silver-tongued leadership. And in “Purlie” he seemed to give Kingism a chance. After mercilessly mocking the trope of the Great White Savior, he allows Charlie Cotchipee, the weakling son of Ol’ Cap’n — a role played by Alan Alda in 1961 and Noah Robbins now — to save the day and redeem his race.
“We still need togetherness; we still need each otherness,” Purlie preaches in the final, forgiving moments of this necessary revival, as Derek McLane’s set undergoes a miraculous transformation from shack to temple. And then Purlie adds, “Do what you can for the white folks.”
Speaking as one, they did.
Through Jan. 7 at the Music Box, Manhattan; purlievictorious.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.