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‘Purlie Victorious’ on Broadway is a romp indeed

Satire is what closes Saturday night, George S. Kaufman famously said. So how about the Broadway chances of a satire of all-American racism set on a wheezing Georgia plantation in the 1950s, replete with pragmatically sycophantic Black characters and a white overlord with a bullwhip?

Magnificent, if there is any justice in the world.

Director Kenny Leon’s supremely well-toned revival of Ossie Davis’ “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch,” the new arrival at Broadway’s Music Box Theatre, is a knockout show, as hilarious as it is cutting and as emotionally warmhearted as it is politically potent. In the great Broadway tradition, it also should make a star out of the fearlessly fabulous Kara Young, playing Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, the naive, countrified partner in crime of the loquacious preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, as played by the “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom, Jr.

And here’s another thing: Unlike some other shows that have tried to comedically address America’s racist past, “Purlie Victorious” does not fall into the trap of addressing only a liberal white audience, but offers up empowering and ennobling entertainment for Black audiences, too. Heck, it does that for all people who value human dignity and are capable of laughing at America’s past.

At the same time, “Purlie” serves as a timely reminder that Davis, like Lorraine Hansberry, was a poetic dramatist quite the equal of the white writers who dominated the main stem when this show first opened at Broadway’s Cort Theatre in 1961.

Much of the show’s current success is due to Leon, a director who might be late in his career but who has steered a series of curated revivals on Broadway in the last couple of seasons that I’d argue have done more to effect meaningful change in the American theater than the work of any other single individual.

The Broadway establishment, and critics, have woefully underestimated what Leon has been doing with deeply textured shows such as “The Ohio State Murders” and “Topdog/Underdog,” the attention he has paid to overlooked writers while also taking care of a modern audience that‘s not looking for a lecture or a postmodern polemic, but something that might unify as much as challenge.

This show is his latest achievement in that vein, and it includes a lovely, tone-setting preshow announcement by the director, offering just enough context for this 62-year-old piece to help everyone understand what this show was, and still is, trying to do.

And while I’m hacking on about what this revival gets so right, let me add the timber-centric design by Derek McLane, which appears simple at first but turns out to be like a jigsaw puzzle fitting together Purlie’s aspirations and ending with a church that seems to get built before your very eyes. Leon is a sufficiently experienced director to know when you just have to let a set come out and breathe and that’s what happens here. Truly, it’s beautiful.

Leslie Odom, Jr. in "Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch" at the Music Box Theatre in New York.

What happens in the plot? Here in 1950s Georgia, slavery may be over but racism and indentured servitude to the Cotchipee family remains, as does the white Cap’n (Jay O. Sanders) and the old ways. But there’s hope for change. The new generation of Cotchipee (nerdy Charlie, hilariously played by Noah Robbins) is trying to find some courage. And the Rev. Purlie Victorious has come up with a scheme to prevent his being cheated out of his family’s righteous inheritance by the wily old white master. Purlie has persuaded Lutiebelle to impersonate his dead Cousin Bee, figuring the Cap’n won’t be able to tell one Black woman from another. And he’s not wrong.

So “Purlie” is not just a satire but a full-blown caper show fully worthy of the subtitle (“A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch”) and structured so that Young, as live as an electric fence, is free to make hay with her character’s rural naiveté in full knowledge that she’s actually one of the smartest in the room.

Odom’s Purlie, of course, is the instigator and protagonist and the star of the show. He certainly delivers, especially in a very moving concluding monologue that tells the audience to take pride in their Blackness and caused some around me to wipe their eyes. But this is also a generous performance: he gives Young the chance to roar along with the material and she just explodes, all night long.

At the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St, New York;

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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