Based on the 1961 comedy, Purlie Victorious by the great actor Ossie Davis, the 1970 musical Purlie, now at Paul Robeson Theatre, captures a time and place in American history: the Jim Crow south just before the civil rights movement, in a broadly satirical send-up of plantation life. Mr. Davis said he wrote the play “to point a mocking finger at racial segregation and laugh it out of existence." The script is packed with racist clichés that will have you laughing and cringing at the same time. The book for the musical is by Mr. Davis, Phillip Rose, and Peter Udell.
The people in this musical live and work on a plantation in Georgia, and for all intents and purposes, remain slaves to plantation owner and white supremacist Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee. After an absence of 20 years, itinerant preacher Purlie Victorious Judson returns home to buy a church, Old Bethel, that has been vacant for many years, and to bring power to the people he left behind. He has a scheme in mind to get the money needed from Ol’ Cap’n, who he believes owes it to him. He brings a lovely, naïve young maid from Alabama with him, who has the unfortunate name, Lutibelle Gussie Mae Jenkins. She is essential to the success of his scheme, as he is ready to take on the Cap’n and shake up the old ways.
The opening number is a rousing gospel song by the company, Walk Him Up the Stairs. Soloist Deatra White-Paris raises her gorgeous voice to the heavens as the congregation celebrates the death of the Cap’n. The backstory leading up to Cap’n’s death then unfolds.
London Lee is Purlie, the smooth-talking preacher with a plan who gave up on education because “…there’s not enough Negroes in the books.” Mr. Lee handles his role with aplomb. He has several lengthy monologues filled with satirical commentary on the state of race relations, his hopes and dreams, along with some confabulation about his exploits. He carries all of this well throughout.
His brother, Gitlow, is well played by Augustus Donaldson, who has the role of being the eye-rolling “Uncle Tom” in the family. In the talkback, Mr. Donaldson said he did not think he could find it within himself to be that character but was encouraged by Director/Choreographer Carlos R. A. Jones to keep working. He did keep working and does a fine job.
Taneisha Facey is excellent as his wife, Missy. Her wise-cracking but kind character is more than a match for Purlie and Gitlow. Her duet with Purlie, Down Home, speaks to the love of the land they live on.
NaTanja Parker plays Lutibelle as an almost child-like young woman who gradually comes into her own. She reminded me of Dorothy Gale with her wide-eyed naïveté. Her voice is not quite strong enough for her solo, Purlie. She sounds much better in her duet with Missy, He Can Do It, in the second act.
Sean Farrell has the thankless but very entertaining role of Ol’ Cap’n. Mr. Farrell embodies the bigotry of the white supremacist, and while his part is truly satirical, he does not fall into the temptation many would of winking at the audience in some way to let us know he is just playing a role.
James Heffron plays his son, Charlie, a young man whose beliefs are 180 degrees from his father’s. Mr. Heffron is very funny singing his weird folk songs. Debbi Davis is Idella, the woman who raised him following his mother’s death. She has a great deadpan expression that speaks volumes about her opinion of the human race in general, and the people around her in particular. Rounding out the cast in addition to Deatra White-Paris in the ensemble, are Jacquie Cherry, Charles A. Everhart, Sr., and John Campfield.
Musical Director Greg Treadwell is on keyboards, Abdul-Rahman Qadir is on drums, and David Wells is on bass. Their expert musicianship is a pleasure to hear and does not overwhelm the singers, which can be the case in such a small space.
Purlie, at the Paul Robeson Theatre until October 7th, is not a great musical but is a mostly lively and entertaining one. The satirical elements carry a message that never seems to be out of date, unfortunately, and they serve as reminder not just of what was, but also of what still is.