Take me to church (or to Broadway): ‘Purlie Victorious’ and the catharsis of Black theater
Church and theater have many obvious affinities. In both, we gather, most often seated in rows, for a shared public ritual with ostensible emotional and spiritual significance. There are defined roles, and ours is mostly to watch and follow along with the script, with officiants or actors doing most of the work.
These defined roles point to an arguably less happy commonality: the sense, in both theater and church, that strict rules of conduct dictate and constrain our engagement with the experience and with each other. God forbid we should effuse, exclaim or otherwise make our presence felt from the pews or theater seats. This is true, at least, of most white churches and predominantly white theater spaces. But two new productions in New York—the ebullient comedy “Purlie Victorious” and the dance-theater piece “(pray)”—remind us not only of the vibrancy and variety of Black religious traditions but of the ways these traditions can spread joy and communion, as well as prophecy and catharsis. Can I get an amen?
Two new productions in New York—the ebullient comedy “Purlie Victorious” and the dance-theater piece “(pray)”—remind us of the vibrancy and variety of Black religious traditions.
“Purlie Victorious,” now in a triumphant Broadway revival directed by Kenny Leon, is a 1961 play by actor-activist Ossie Davis, in which the traveling preacher named in the title returns to his rural Georgia hometown to claim an inheritance and open his own church. Standing in his way is the plantation owner Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, a proud neo-Confederate who controls the town by means of debt peonage and a bullwhip. Trickery and shenanigans ensue.
That Davis could turn this hoary material into a viable comedy at all is marvel enough; that this sparkling new production makes the play work in 2023 is a kind of miracle. I would chalk this up not only to Leon’s knowing direction, which leans into the absurd without breaking the play’s bustling rhythm, but to the fine shadings the actors have layered into the broad, nearly cartoonish strokes of their characters.
In the title role, Leslie Odom Jr. does not skimp on bluster or bonhomie, but also gives glimpses of both the lost little boy inside and the disconsolate anger that racism kindled in that boy. As his nemesis, Ol’ Cap’n, Jay O. Sanders has a disarming sincerity that makes this clueless old white patriarch both pitiable and scary. But it is Kara Young, as a young bumpkin named Lutiebelle who figures into Purlie’s scheme to outsmart Ol’ Cap’n, who walks away with “Purlie Victorious.” In a role originally played by Ruby Dee, Young finds the surprise in every line and gives a questioning edge to every exchange.
Without this comic filigree, Davis’s caricature of the Jim Crow South, fueled by a barely concealed righteous rage, would be the stuff of horror, not entertainment. Purlie’s concluding ironic eulogy for racism manages simultaneously to parody Black preachers’ rhetoric and to remind us of Davis’s gifts in this arena—he gave a memorable speech at Malcolm X’s funeral.
While “Purlie Victorious” ends in a Black church, nicHi douglas’s “(pray)” spends its entire 70-minute running time in a kind of church, with pews arranged around a playing area at the Greenwich House in the West Village. As douglas’s stage directions require, the action is “definitely situated in something like a Southern Black Baptist church,” but “the language is abstracted away from Christian monotheism.”
So you won’t hear amen here but again; you’ll hear the word good in place of God. And if you recognize a familiar hymn, sung by a talented cast of varying ages and types, all called Sister Anna Bertha, you may not be able to sing along. “This little shine o’ might/ I’m gonna let it light,” goes one.
Though “(pray)” could best be described as a sort of liturgical choreopoem, douglas is advancing an argument—or rather, staging both sides of it.
This isn’t mere prankish tweaking. Indeed, though “(pray)” could best be described as a sort of liturgical choreopoem, douglas is advancing an argument—or rather, staging both sides of it. On the one hand, as one Sister Anna Bertha puts it, the Black church has historically been a place where women could claim moral authority and leadership, where they have “found a valuable means of facing the oppression they experienced based on both their gender and their race,” as well as “a means to express anger and deep sadness.”
The counterarguments—that Christian texts have often been used to justify racism and misogyny, and that the white man’s religion was imposed as a means of social control on those they enslaved—are not made explicitly here. But they reverberate in the room, with occasional ominous external sounds evoking a larger world in which Black folks are still explicitly targeted, sometimes within their own church walls. Occasionally a wordless dancer called Ancestor (Satori Folkes-Stone) emerges to throw the proceedings into stark relief, then retreats to an offstage altar, hidden behind a clutch of Wenge trees, to ritually burn small shreds of paper.
An inquisitive character called Free (Amara Granderson) starts out by commenting from one of the pews, then eventually enters the fray of the Sisters’ service. Her questioning spirit rebalances the proceedings toward a more inclusive embrace—inclusive not only of a diversity of racial and gender identities, but of experiences and beliefs.
This is a gospel I can endorse. That all are welcome at the table is a central tenet of Christian faith; that all have not been made to feel welcome in our houses of worship is a demonstrable truth in tension with that faith. Centering and consecrating Black women—who, for all the shelter they may find in religious faith, still face multiple layers of bias under white patriarchy—only widens the doors of the church for us all.
At the conclusion of “(pray),” a song of praise (the show’s eclectic music is by S T A R R Busby and JJJJJerome Ellis) sends us out cleansed and changed. If that’s not a kind of church, I don’t know what is.