by Hugh Hunter
“Purlie Victorious” (1961), written by Ossie Davis and now running at Allens Lane Theater, takes the audience back to another era. A distinguished African-American actor, Davis was also an early civil rights activist, and his play is another contribution to the movement.
Set in a cotton plantation in the South during the 1950s, Purlie V. Judson returns to his boyhood home. As a self-made preacher on a mission, Purlie tries to outwit the plantation owner and to reclaim and integrate a historic black church.
Maurice A. Tucker stars as Purlie. Dressed in formal black clothes, he looks like a cross between a preacher and an undertaker. The major characters in the play are caricatures, and their dress signals their reality (costumes by Tiffany Bacon and cast).
Purlie’s nemesis is Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, the segregationist plantation owner, played by Lawrence H. Geller with picturesque and hilarious understatement. Gitlow is Purlie’s groveling older brother, and the comic timing of actor Kareem Diallo Carpenter is a delight to watch.
Rounding out the cast are E. RaMona Sewell as Lutiebelle, both Purlie’s love interest and a pawn in his plotting; Gitlow’s wife, Missy Judson (Tiffany Bacon); Idella (Meryl Lynn Brown), a housemaid; Charlie (Brian Weiser), Ol’ Cap’n's enlightened son and The Sheriff (William F. McDevitt).
The ramshackle, clapboard family home creates a nice feeling of time and place (set design by David Ward, Scott Newport and Robert Anu). The production is vibrant and nuanced; it needs to be because the script is limited (and may be better suited to “Purlie,” its 1970 Broadway musical reincarnation).
Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee totally controls plantation life, bullwhip in hand. That he becomes an endearing figure is enough to tell you the play is essentially a spoof.
Always seeking personal advantage, hero Purlie is more con artist than righter of wrongs. In some ways he is similar to the intruder heroes in “The Music Man” and “The Rainmaker,” connivers who help the community conquer their difficulties almost by accident.
“Purlie Victorious” laughs at everyone. Director Robert Anu has put together a standout cast, and the stage brims with life. The cotton plantation becomes a metaphor for the American racial morass that is so complex and seemingly endless that it can even engulf its self-appointed reformers.
Young people today have little idea how long a reach American apartheid used to have. As a kid myself at the time that “Purlie” was first staged, I remember feeling shocked (everybody was) to be watching television and suddenly see black people in a commercial for toothpaste. That sort of thing was not supposed to happen.
“Purlie Victorious” is like a time capsule. Perhaps its most notable achievement lies in its political activism, that in 1961 there even was a hit Broadway show that concerned itself with the lives of black people.
Allens Lane Theater is located at Allens Lane near McCallum Street. “Purlie Victorious” will run through Oct 12. Reservations available at 215-248-0546 or allenslane.org.