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‘Purlie Victorious’ on Broadway is a real treat

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

Great, if there is justice in the world.

Director Kenny Leon’s remarkably well-toned revival of Broadway Music Box Theater newcomer Ossie Davis’s “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch” is as sharp, funny and emotionally striking as it is a show. He is warm-hearted because he is politically strong. In grand Broadway tradition, it should also make a star of the fearlessly gorgeous Kara Young, who plays Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, the naive, redneck accomplice of loud-mouthed preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, played by “Hamilton” star Leslie. Odom Jr.

And here’s another thing: Unlike some other shows that try to comedicly address America’s racist past, “Purlie Victorious” doesn’t fall into the trap of appealing only to a liberal white audience, but also offers empowering and ennobling entertainment for Black viewers as well . Hell, he’s doing this for anyone who values ​​human dignity and can laugh at America’s past.

At the same time, “Purlie” is a timely reminder that Davis, like Lorraine Hansberry, was a poetic playwright on par with the white writers who dominated the mainstream when she debuted at Broadway’s Cort Theater in 1961.

Much of the show’s current success is due to Leon, a director who may have been late in his career but has helmed a series of curated revivals that I would argue has done more to create meaningful change on Broadway in the past few seasons. American theater is superior to the work of any single individual.

Broadway circles and critics have woefully underestimated what Leon has done with deeply textured shows like “The Ohio State Murders” and “Topdog/Underdog,” his attention to overlooked writers while also engaging a modern audience. This is not a lesson or a postmodern polemic, but seeks something that can be as unifying as a challenge.

This show is his latest success in this sense, and features a nice, tone-setting pre-show announcement from the director; provides enough context for this 62-year-old work to help anyone understand what this show was and still is. trying to do.

While I’m explaining how true this revival is, let me also include Derek McLane’s wood-centric design; While this may seem simple at first glance, it turns out to be a puzzle that brings together Purlie’s dreams and ends with a church. It looks as if it was built before your eyes. Leon is an experienced enough director to know when a set needs to emerge and breathe, and that’s what happens here. It’s really beautiful.

What’s happening in the scenario? Here in 1950s Georgia, slavery may be over, but racism and indentured servitude to the Cotchipee family persist, as do the white Captain (Jay O. Sanders) and old traditions. But there is hope for change. The next generation Cotchipee (the nerdy Charlie, hilariously played by Noah Robbins) is trying to find some courage. And Reverend Purlie Victorious came up with a plan to prevent his family from being cheated out of their fair inheritance by the crafty old white lord. Purlie convinced Lutiebelle to impersonate her dead Cousin Bee, thinking the Captain wouldn’t be able to tell one Black woman from another. And he’s not wrong.

So “Purlie” isn’t just a satire, it’s a full-on caper show, fully worthy of the subtitle (“A Non-Confederate Romp in a Cotton Patch”) and structured in such a way that Young can move about as freely as he is alive as an electric fence. He gets by with the country naiveté of his character, knowing that she’s actually one of the smartest people in the room.

Odom’s Purlie is, of course, the instigator, hero, and star of the show. He certainly pulls it off, especially in a very moving closing monologue that tells the audience to be proud of their Blackness and had some around me wiping their eyes. But it’s also a generous performance: It gives Young the chance to roar with the material, and he explodes all night long.

at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St, New York; purlievictorious.com

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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