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A Jim Crow satire returns to Broadway after 62 years — and it's a romp, not a relic

Leslie Odom Jr., who won a Tony playing Aaron Burr in <em>Hamilton</em>, is now back on Broadway as Purlie.
Marc J. Franklin
Purlie Victorious
Leslie Odom Jr., who won a Tony playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, is now back on Broadway as Purlie.

The first revival of Ossie Davis' satire on the Jim Crow south, Purlie Victorious: A Romp Through the Non-Confederate Cotton Patch, is opening on Broadway after a 62-year absence. But the play is no relic – the people involved say its pointed humor speaks to our current world.

Guy Davis, the son of legendary actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, was only a small child when the original production of Purlie Victorious opened. But he said the musical fit in with his family's values.

"There was an expression in our family; love, art and activism, and that's something that we tried to stick with," said Guy Davis, who composed music for the revival.

Not only did the show give his parents, who were married for 57 years, a chance to act together onstage, but it also brought to Broadway a discussion about the country's Civil Rights struggle, which they were deeply involved in. Davis remembers the play counted among its audience the leading Black activists of the day, including Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.

The play started as an angry autobiographical play filled with many of the racist incidents Ossie Davis had experienced growing up in Waycross, Ga. But he soon decided to make it a satire instead.

"He'd tell us, sort of philosophically, that humor is one of the best ways to express anger," said Guy Davis, "because it opens up more doors and invites in more people, and they can absorb it with laughter more easily."

Getting out from under a plantation owner's thumb

The plot is filled with comic twists. A young preacher, Purlie Victorious Judson, has returned to the plantation where he grew up. His plan is to trick the owner, Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee, to give him $500 Purlie's family is owed.

Cotchipee has kept the Black sharecroppers under his thumb for decades. As Purlie tells Lutibelle Gussie May Jenkins, a naïve woman he's enlisted to help in his scheme, "He owns this dump, not me. And that ain't all. Hill and dale, field and farm, truck and tractor, horse and mule, bird and bee and bush and tree and cotton. Cotton by the bowl and by the bale. Every bit of cotton you see in this county. Everything and everybody he owns."

Leslie Odom, Jr., who won a Tony Award playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton, has returned to Broadway, not only to play Purlie, but as one of the show's producers.

"I think we're going to discover ... why Mr. Davis' words are so necessary right now," Odom said, particularly because of the way it addresses race. "There are a couple of trap doors, a couple of dark and scary closets in this thing that needed to be opened."

At the same time, he said the character of Purlie "loves America, believes in the idea of America. ... I just feel lucky that I'm having this rumination on what it means to be an American, what it means to be an African American."

Tony-winning director Kenny Leon, whose mother's family were sharecroppers in Florida, said Ossie Davis' comedy is sharp-edged, but leads with love and hope for understanding.

"It is the most relevant play right now based on where we are in the country politically ... where we are racially, our disconnect to the transgender, gay community. Not understanding freedom for one, is freedom for all," he said.

On the corner of Ossie Davis Way and Ruby Dee Place

Kara Young and Heather Alicia Simms in <em>Purlie Victorious</em>
Marc J. Franklin / Purlie Victorious
Purlie Victorious
Kara Young and Heather Alicia Simms in Purlie Victorious

Kara Young plays Lutibelle in the production. She grew up in Harlem, not far from a street corner at 123rd St. and St. Nicholas Ave. that has been given the honorary designation Ossie Davis Way and Ruby Dee Place.

She looked up at the street signs and said, "it's kind of kismet to be right here in this little nook" of Harlem, especially playing the role Ruby Dee originated.

Still, Young says when she initially read the play, some of it felt "really icky and really sticky." She said she didn't get the humor, racial absurdities and truth of it, until she heard it read aloud.

"I was like, 'Whoa!,'" Young said. She instantly understood why it is being remounted now.

"Our history is literally being ignored. And this is a play that says: You can't ignore what happened. You can't ignore the truth."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.