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Exclusive: On the History and Hope of PURLIE VICTORIOUS

Purlie Victorious is Tony-nominated for Best Revival of a Play.

By: Jun. 11, 2024
Exclusive: On the History and Hope of PURLIE VICTORIOUS  Image
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As the 77th Annual Tony Awards quickly approach, BroadwayWorld has invited the producers of the Best Production nominees to reflect on their experiences in bringing their shows to Broadway in this stellar season.

Today, we hear from producer Jeffrey Richards, who contributed the below essay about his six-time Tony-nominated Best Revival of a Play, Purlie Victorious.

In no other play does the protagonist bless the audience with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights before its conclusion. These profoundly American documents that defend our inalienable rights carry with them the weighted symbol of American prosperity, and yet, these documents have historically fallen short time and time again.

Purlie Victorious has always held a special place in my memory as my mother was company manager of the original Broadway production. I remember seeing the show on numerous occasions and the roaring laughter that emanated from the theater. In 2022, when Leslie reached out to me and expressed his desire for a revival, I was elated. I had been pursuing the rights for years and had held a reading two decades prior with Harold Perrineau, Kerry Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, George Grizzard, Ruby Dee, and Robert Sella.

During this process, what continues to surprise me is the boundless depth of history this play holds. From its origins to those it’s impacted, at each step we seem to uncover a new thread which reminds us how poignantly relevant this play remains.

Following the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, Ossie Davis began writing a play filled with anger and frustration. Having grown up in the deeply segregated state of Georgia, Mr. Davis was no stranger to the heated anguish of racism, and he sought to confine his fury within his work.

Once finished, he looked back over his writing and was appalled; “I didn’t believe a single word my characters were saying. No white folks could possibly be as mean and hateful, no black folks such hopeless, helpless victims. I read it aloud and found it hard to keep myself from laughing.”* What had started as a play of vengeance morphed into a collage of folktales, fables, and sermons… as our director Kenny Leon so often refers to it, “A love letter to America today.”

For this reason, it was important to our team and the children of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to resurrect the play’s full title… Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch… as that is what this play is, a romp. A brilliant balance of humor and heart, caricature and criticism, satire and scrutiny.

For me, what encapsulates that balance of tone is the penultimate scene, when Purlie confronts Ol’Cap’n Cotchipee and declares, “We gonna love you if you let us and laugh as we leave if you don’t.” This, combined with the line “We still need togetherness; we still need each otherness,” signifies how Ossie Davis’ words have as much relevance today as they did in 1961.

When I reflect on our run, I am reminded that there is power in laughter. “There must be a reason why we humans are the only animals blessed – or cursed- with the gift of laughter,”* an internal tether that unites us and allowed audiences, regardless of race, age, gender, and class, to leave the Music Box Theatre with hope.  

*Excerpted from Purlie Victorious: A Commemorative published in 1993