A Sermon from the Past

To contemporary audiences, Ossie Davis is probably best known for his poignant portrayal of "Da Mayor" of Spike Lee's Brooklyn, delivering the titular advice, "Do the right thing." More recently, he has landed in the less august position of Burt Reynolds' avuncular counselor on television's Evening Shade. But these roles are virtually footnotes to a long and distinguished career as an actor, producer, director and, singularly, the playwright of Purlie Victorious, the 1961 Southern farce currently receiving a broadly comic revival at the Ensemble.

Davis was astute to devote his career primarily to acting. Granted, Purlie Victorious has its moments, and enough comic energy to sustain its farcical context -- a cartoonish version of '50s Georgia cotton country -- but the play is so formulaic in its situations, and so contrived in its plot, that it now seems rooted more in theatrical convention than in any real history. Nominally about the lamentable conditions of black sharecroppers in the segregated South, it might as well be about saving the damsel in distress and her ranch from the evil machinations of Snidely Whiplash (complete, in the person of "Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee," with sinister mustache). Here we have villains and innocents, heroes and fools, and it's no undue strain on the audience to distinguish each from the other.

As the play begins, an itinerant preacher (full name: Purlie Victorious Judson) has returned from Alabama to his childhood home in Georgia, determined to open an integrated church dedicated to a down-home version of liberation theology. But even a church needs a stake. And to get his, which he hopes to use to buy a broken-down chapel, Purlie (Werner Richmond) has decided to con $500 out of "Ol' Cap'n" (Rick Walter), who years ago bullwhipped him off the plantation. Purlie's shill is Lutibelle Gussiemae Jenkins (Chandra Hawkins), an ingenuous and love-struck choir girl who came with Purlie from Alabama and has agreed to impersonate his long-departed cousin, the heiress to a very small fortune ($500) held in trust by the Cap'n. Purlie's co-conspirators include his no-nonsense sister Missy (BeBe Wilson) and, more reluctantly, Missy's no-count husband, who is also the Cap'n's favorite cotton-picker, Gitlow Judson (Kirk Dautrive).

Meanwhile, up at the big house, in counterpoint to these cotton-hand comic types, are the thoroughly unreconstructed Cap'n and his unreliable allies, among them his kind-hearted son, Charlie (Brian Hill), who is suspected of creeping integrationism, and the loyal, hard-working but free-thinking cook, Idella (Shirley Marks Whitmore). When Purlie's plan inevitably goes awry (Lutibelle can't quite keep up her masquerade) and the Cap'n swears vengeance, it's readily apparent that the old boy will be outflanked and betrayed by those closest to him.

Although there are the usual slapstick gags about baseball bats and bullwhips, in this cartoon version of segregation little of consequence is really at stake. There are no sheriffs with dogs at the ready, no night riders burning crosses and people. The play's sympathies embrace a cheerfully sentimental vision of integration, culminating in a church service updated by the company to include an invigorating jazz-choral version of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" oration that gathers in the audience. It's definitely a dream with a happy ending, from a time long ago, and a place far away.

On the Ensemble's arena stage, scenic designer Karen Hoffman has ingeniously managed to suggest a rustic tenant shack, commissary and chapel in a single set. The director, Ladjamaya, pushes her charges at the frenetic pace the material requires, but often at a pitch that could be taken down several pegs, particularly in the case of Chandra Hawkins' relentlessly hysterical Lutibelle. Werner Richmond's Purlie begins a bit stiffly but ingratiates as the evening wears on, and Richmond does justice to the reverend's grand perorations in the second act. He is ably supported by BeBe Wilson as the indomitable Missy and Kirk Dautrive as the shiftless Gitlow (so named to allow Missy's line, "How low can you git, Gitlow?"). Rick Walter is sufficiently over the top as the blowhard Cap'n, and Brian Hill suitably obsequious as his too-liberal son. As the bemused and world-weary cook Idella Landry, Shirley Marks Whitmore comes as close as possible to playing the material as it really feels, 33 years on: a period farce, as wistfully recalled as a sentimental tune.

It would be interesting to know what the playwright himself thinks of his youthful endeavor, from the perspective of another generation of American history. Purlie belongs to a world that, in retrospect at least, seems much simpler than our own, and its gentle optimism rests on a willed conviction that racial harmony was just around the corner. That dream has been too long in coming true.


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