‘Purlie Victorious’: Ossie Davis’s ‘Gospel to Humanity’ Returns to Broadway

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How do you balance the play’s humor and its politics?

ODOM It’s a romp. It’s a real hoot. We’re having a ball. As joyful and as light-filled as this experience is, he realized it was too painful to ask an audience to sit through it. It’s already an act of great generosity and grace that he decided to put it together in this way. He wanted us to be able to witness these people that he grew up with, this country that he grew up in, this farm that he knew so well, but he wanted you to be able to stand it and to tolerate it.

LEON We’re telling it in a joyous way and dealing with some real stuff.

YOUNG There are just so many gems about the violence of our just existing. There is a line I said the other day that reminds me of gentrification. Lutiebelle says, “The whole thing was a trip to get you out of the house.” I’m a Harlemite, and I’ve been feeling the violence of gentrification for years. I know that’s not what the play is about, but these things are dropped in the story, and because it is so dramaturgically sound, they can live on their own.

LEON That’s so beautiful because that, to me, is what artists are supposed to do. We’re supposed to revisit the work from the previous generation and say, “How does that relate to me now?” I treat revivals like they’re new plays. Everything about being American, definitely about being Black in America, you can find in his play.

Is that why you changed the structure from three to two acts, without an intermission?

LEON I read plays five times to inform me of what I will do with them. After the fifth reading, I came away with the idea that it is about getting to that last page and scene. And getting to that last scene meant it’s about the rhythm of what’s happening onstage and people in the audience not thinking about time. I don’t want the outside world to come in. I just want them to get lost in this world.

Kara and Leslie, what is it like to invoke the spirit of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis onstage?

YOUNG I’m a huge fan of Ruby, oddly also as a Harlemite. Ruby and Ossie are great examples of what it means to be organizers and activists and to be a force of change. But what it means to step into a role that Ruby Dee originated, I can’t quite put that into language. But this is also a role about a young woman and her journey, about finding a sense of self and her importance in the world for the first time and standing in that. It feels like a very universal story for a Black girl.

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