“…And, finally, our Theatre will say segregation is ridiculous because it makes perfectly wonderful people, white and black, do ridiculous things!”~from Purlie’s I.O.U.
Allens Lane Arts Center is celebrating 60 years of live theatre this season. First on the boards is Ossie Davis’ 1961 comedy PURLIE VICTORIOUS, running at the Mt. Airy theatre until October 12th, 2013 and directed by Robert Anu.
Ossie Davis was a well-respected actor of stage and screen at a time when few African-Americans were achieving such success. In the mid-1950s, he and his wife, actress Ruby Dee, developed close friendships with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. This led to their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement—they were instrumental in the planning of the March on Washington and participated in several other key events of the era. This activism continued until his death in February 2005.
One outlet for Davis’ beliefs was the play PURLIE VICTORIOUS, a wonderfully engaging stage piece that gets the message across loud and clear without ever getting preachy. Davis’ story deals with the return of Purlie Victorious Judson to his family’s shack in rural Georgia, circa 1958—59. Purlie is a self-proclaimed Reverend and he is on a mission to regain the church taken away from the black cotton pickers by the owner of the plantation, Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee. To aid him in this endeavor he has brought with him Miss Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins—an innocent young domestic worker who resembles his late cousin (and who happens to be head-over-heels in love with him). You see the Cap’n owes the cousin an inheritance of $500.00 and Purlie plans to get it. Relatives Missy Judson and her husband Gitlow are both a help and a hindrance—and provide a lot of the comedy. Also on hand are the Cap’n’s “new South” son Charlie (who’s all for desegregation) and his family’s sassy housekeeper, Idella; add to that the typical redneck Southern sheriff and we’ve got an interesting mix.
A handsome man with a commanding presence, Maurice A. Tucker is great fun to watch in the title role. Purlie turns everything he says into a sermon, pouring forth phrases about African princesses and the like. Tucker makes the most of the musicality of the language, amusing the viewer without ever becoming a caricature. As Lutiebelle, E. Ra Mona Sewell is the epitome of sweetness and adoration. And her comic timing ain’t too bad either. Lawrence H. Geller’s Ol’ Cap’n is spot-on; Geller deftly walks the fine line between just enough smarm and going too far. And Brian Weiser does a terrific job as his son Charlie, giving great reactions to the Judson’s pulling the wool over his father’s eyes. Meryl Lynn Brown is equally entertaining as Idella, showing funny moments of spark against Ol’ Cap’n; while William F. McDevitt channels redneck Sheriff to a tea. The voice of reason throughout is Missy Judson, and Tiffany Bacon brings great sass to the role. She nails the right balance of sarcasm and love. For me, the most difficult role must be that of Gitlow—a “Steppin’ Fetchit” type. Kareem Diallo Carpenter does a masterful job of “shuckin’ and jivin’,” yet shows us a man who knows what he’s doing and is getting the last laugh.
Director Robert Anu has paced his production well and has kept his actors from overplaying things. One clearly sees his deft touches throughout, contributing to the set design and soundscape as well. And resident Master Carpenter David Ward has added his talents, along with Scott Newport, to bring an intriguing creation of a plantation shack to life. Assorted odd cuts of wood—going in all sorts of directions—create the walls, and the furniture also has just the right worn-out look. The side areas of the Allens Lane stage serve as the back room of the Cap’n Commissary (where he gets back the pitiful wages he’s paid the cotton pickers and then some), as well as a cotton field and the church. Mike Lucek has provided a great lighting design and Kamili Feelings executes it and the sound perfectly. Ms. Bacon does double duty as the costumer, with an assist from her castmates.
PURLIE VICTORIOUS is a highly entertaining, solid production—well worth the trip to Mt. Airy. The house was full to overflowing at Sunday’s matinee and everyone was having a terrific time—including several well-behaved little ones. Anu and company should be very proud of their work. Do the workers get their church back? Is Purlie victorious? You’ll just have to catch one of the remaining performances to find out…
by Ossie Davis
Directed by Robert Anu
September 27th—October 12th, 2013
Allens Lane Theatre
Allens Lane & McCallum Streets
Philadelphia, PA 19119