So can this really be a comedy? Not just a comedy, but a musical comedy? The truly shocking thing about the play is not that it takes place four decades ago, but that it is so recent. The comedy seems at times like Gilbert and Sullivan and the plantation hierarchy seems as outrageous as The Mikado's daughter-in-law elect and Lord High Executioner. Thank God for laughter.
Purlie is the musical version of Ossie Davis' 1963 play Purlie Victorious. In Le Petit's revival, director Tommye Myrick has assembled a strong cast. By no means ignoring the silliness Davis clearly enjoyed, she also gives us glimpses of the pain and frustration black workers suffered in the so-called good old days.
The show opens in a black church with a rock 'em, sock 'em hymn, 'Walk Him up the Stairs." The 'him" in question is lying in a casket decorated with a Confederate flag. Purlie, the fiery, young reverend, asks his congregation to pray for the deceased " although his soul is most likely frying in hell. This enigmatic situation will be resolved in the course of the play. In the meantime, we are dazzled by singing from the church soloist (Melissa Milezone Williams) and dance and even some world-class tambourine work from Rosalie Ashton-Washington.
The church dissolves and is replaced by the world of its congregation. The scene is divided between the shack where Reverend Purlie (Fenwick Broyard III) lives with his sister-in-law Missy (Asia Rainey) and the Cap'n's commissary that sell all sort of goods ('bads" might be a more accurate description of the shabby merchandise) to the African Americans that pick his cotton. With its rotten foodstuffs and staples, the commissary is one of the ways the Cap'n keeps them in debt and in a kind of unofficial servitude.
Purlie wants to get his hands on $500 that was left to his sister by her employer. That inheritance fell into the Cap'n's hands when the sister died, so Purlie has arranged for a young girl named Lutiebelle to come and claim she's a cousin so she can also claim the $500.
Lutiebelle (the delightful Idella Johnson) is intimidated by this underhanded quest " even if it's a way of righting a past wrong. But her compunctions are overcome by a warm welcome from Missy and a growing attachment to Purlie. She quite simply and glowingly falls head-over-heels for him. Johnson's slight frame seems plugged into some cosmic energy of song as Purlie peals her passion in 'I Got Love." Good thing she's got such a powerful sentiment because the old white codger tricks her into signing a receipt, then threatens to have her thrown in jail for fraud and theft. She and her Bible-thumping boyfriend take to their heels.
That's a pretty thick gruel, but it gets even thicker in act two. Finally, when you think there's no way out but tragedy, a cockeyed fairy tale light shines on these cotton fields. Purlie's impassioned rhetoric of freedom is justified " thanks in part to Charlie (James Bernstein), the Cap'n's progressive son.
Completing the cast are Christopher-Michael Williams as the cynical 'deputy for the colored" and Carol Sutton as the wry but kind house servant " who was perhaps responsible for young Charlie's faith in the brotherhood of mankind.
Purlie features 15 songs with a chorus of nine and six dancers. Some of the best numbers are comic, like the Cap'n explaining to his son the justice of injustice in 'Big Fish Eat the Little Fish," or black members of the congregation flattering the Cap'n by proclaiming him 'Great White Father" of the year.
At any rate, Purlie gets the $500 and (thanks to Charlie's disobedience of his father's orders) a deed of ownership to the church. In the midst of this apocalypse of joy, the old Cap'n drops dead. So, we end up where we began. The coffin with the Confederate flag in the African-American church contains the earthly remains of Cotchipec. Ironically, the congregation is singing him to rest for the very gifts that he sought to keep from them.