Sanders’s Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, a fulminating fossil of Old South White supremacy, is such a ripe target for abuse that you wonder why “Purlie Victorious” hasn’t been back on these boards way before now. Maybe the worry has been that the offensiveness of Ol’ Cap’n’s mouth was too harsh for contemporary ears. Or that the ugly views he espouses — and even his odd fragility, his desire for love from the Black workers he casually disparages — were better memorialized by locking the script away in a rusting filing cabinet.
But we know now that racism hasn’t been washed out of the American fabric, like a stubborn stain ruining a carpet. So the time indeed feels right for another round of “Purlie Victorious,” subtitled “A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch,” which had its official opening Wednesday night at the Music Box on West 45th Street. The weapon Davis wielded on this occasion wasn’t a wagging finger. It was laughter. And Leon, who has found a métier in wildly original plays driven by Black characters — last season’s Tony-winning “Topdog/Underdog” revival among them — proves a maestro at conducting a cadre of splendid comic actors.
They include Odom, the definitively covetous Aaron Burr of “Hamilton,” as Purlie, and Kara Young, in the nascent season’s breakout performance as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, the wee firecracker recruited for Purlie’s moneymaking ruse. Young, memorable in the Broadway cast of Lynn Nottage’s recent “Clyde’s,” here receives a promotion to unforgettable, playing Lutiebelle in a languorous Southern cadence all her own.
To the pantheon of underestimated ingénues, Young applies hilariously for admission: Her Lutiebelle is a glorious bouquet masquerading as a flaky shrinking violet, winning Purlie’s heart (and the audience’s) as if it were all predestined.
Others orbit these actors with their own risible gravitational pulls: Vanessa Bell Calloway, playing Ol’ Cap’n’s seen-it-all housekeeper, Idella; Noah Robbins as his subversively wily son, Charlie; and Heather Alicia Simms and Billy Eugene Jones as Missy and Gitlow Judson, the wary couple down the hill from Ol’ Cap’n’s house. The Judsons live in the pristine wooden shack (ably rendered by set designer Derek McLane) where Purlie hatches his plan to trick Ol’ Cap’n out of the money he’s held onto from the inheritance of a Black woman, now deceased.
Davis wrote “Purlie Victorious” (and starred in it on Broadway with his wife Ruby Dee as Lutiebelle) in the era of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights marches of the early 1960s. (A lively musical version, titled simply “Purlie,” played Broadway in the early ’70s.) When “Purlie Victorious” takes place is vague; the program says only “the recent past.” The time is well after the Civil War, though, because Ol’ Cap’n is nostalgic for the antebellum way of life. Still, the war may as well have been yesterday for all of the old bigot’s antics and the vinegary asides by his Black employees.
“I live for the day you sing that old spiritual over my grave,” Sanders says to Jones’s seemingly supplicating Gitlow.
“Me, too, Ol’ Cap’n,” Gitlow replies.
Jones, who played dual roles in James Ijames’s Pulitzer-winning “Fat Ham” off-Broadway and on, and Simms contribute the layered performances that Davis sought as antidotes to stock Black caricatures. Sanders, on the other hand — in the most outrageously, satisfyingly bravura role of his career — doubles down on the stereotype. Maybe Colonel Sanders gave him inspiration? In any event, his Ol’ Cap’n is so gloriously out of touch, so primed for comeuppance that he and Leon give us permission to laugh.
Of course, a Broadway show almost always needs a star, and Odom has attained that stature. You sense that the production understands that, too, in the moment Purlie takes Young’s Lutiebelle in his arms and she instantly melts. His energy and self-belief propel the proceedings in a manner both slickly modern and, in technical acumen, rewardingly old school.
Costume designer Emilio Sosa and lighting designer Adam Honoré make the proceedings all look good, too: To accommodate the charade that Purlie and Lutiebelle perpetrate for Ol’ Cap’n, Sosa dresses Young in the prim churchgoing splendor that her character isn’t quite built for. It thus inspires the actress to a wonderfully funny display of physical awkwardness.
The production treats us to this sort of divinely worked-out moment in every scene. Sometimes, a cast in a well-made comedy can let us know they’re playing for keeps and, at the same time, for fun. This is the fine line that “Purlie Victorious” walks so beautifully.
Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, by Ossie Davis. Directed by Kenny Leon. Sets, Derek McLaine; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lighting, Adam Honoré; sound, Peter Fitzgerald; music, Guy Davis. With Bill Timoney, Noah Pyzik. About 1 hour 45 minutes. At the Music Box, 239 W. 45th St., New York. purlievictorious.com.