Black Theater Ensemble Review: Purlie Victorious
Written by Bwog Staff
In my defense, there is no way I could have known what to expect last night as I entered the Lerner Black Box Theater to see Black Theater Ensemble’s production of Purlie Victorious. Spiral notebook held high, pencil behind my ear, and grinning insincerely as I am wont to do, I strode into the room and proudly proclaimed that I was the Bwog reviewer—when everyone in the room stopped dead in their tracks to greet me. Within a minute of taking my seat, the producer and a member of the cast had introduced themselves, excitedly telling me about the Ensemble’s mission and that, despite the fact that I would be alone in the audience, I should feel free to laugh; the play is, after all, a comedy. Though the dress rehearsal hadn’t yet begun, the energy in the room was palpable, and the friendliness and excitement of the cast and crew was infectious. I quickly tucked away my pencil and spiral notebook, and a genuine smile broke across my face; “I am an idiot,” I thought. I tell this story because I strongly recommend that you attend Purlie Victorious, and that you do so without reservations.
Set in the Deep South in the era of Jim Crow segregation, Ossie Davis’ 1961 play tells the story of a young, charismatic black preacher—Purlie Victorious Judson, who has one of the play’s many bizarre names—and his attempt to save the local church from plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, a bullwhip-wielding ex-Confederate battle axe. This play is, indeed, about racism, but it has no didactic stories to tell; it’s always a comedy, and a very funny one at that. Though Davis’ script is not always easy to stomach, this production is simply not crafted to evoke blatant or predictable feelings of discomfort. Regardless of your identity, ethnic background, or predispositions, you can laugh at this show without hating yourself; it’s just that kind of performance, a truly inclusive experience for everybody.
Director Nailah Robinson’s production is quite spare, with scarcely more than a few pieces of period furniture on the stage and a lighting and sound scheme that, while perfectly functional, is very low on atmosphere. As a result, the show’s energy is carried exclusively by the cast members, who never fail to deliver; the interplay between the actors is clearly as dynamic onstage as it is off, and watching the whole Ensemble at work is often absolutely exhilarating. Of course, the cast did have its highlights: Joshua Szymanowski is spectacularly crotchety as Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, and relishes equally in the character’s moments of affected machismo and genuine malice. Morgan Ferguson plays the flighty Lutiebelle Jenkins with a wonderful cocktail of breathiness and insecurity, and Jonathan Smith portrays the young Charlie Cotchipee as delightfully, if tragically, inept. Overall, however, one must thank the entire Ensemble for the production—it is an extremely tight affair with little to no excess, and there is clearly not a single member of the cast or crew who does not contribute to the success of the play.
Unusually, this play ends in what the program calls an epilogue—a scene that I found somewhat jarring. It is perhaps the only moment in the play that evokes a legitimate sensation of unease, and it made me consider the overall risk-averseness of the production. This is a play that could very easily have been shoved down my throat like one of the main character’s sermons; at a different production, I might have spent the barely two hours of the show squirming instead of belly-laughing in my seat. Some may chastise the cast and crew for making light of a number of very serious issues, and this is perhaps a valid complaint; however, I can confidently say that this production worked for me. Maybe it’s ultimately because I was alone in the audience, but I found it a joy and an honor to be in on the joke.
Purlie Victorious plays in the Lerner Black Box Theater this Friday and Saturday.