By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
A parade of stereotypes kicks and hollers through Purlie Victorious, Ossie Davis' brash 40-year-old comedy about the bizarre variety of "freedom" that rural blacks experienced in the segregated South of the 1950s--the Emancipation Proclamation was the key that opened the padlock of slavery's chains, but the indentured servitude of sharecropping imposed by farm and plantation owners created a surreal employment contract where field workers were perpetually in debt to their employers. Davis' satire still packs quite a wallop, although the inevitable Uncle Tom character has run its course as a tool of critique--see Spike Lee's Bamboozled. He no longer carries quite the same ring of authenticity, much less recognizability (thank God). I can't imagine what the show must have felt like to New York audiences who caught its long Broadway run in 1961--Davis indicates that he and the producers launched an aggressive campaign of courting African-American churches, clubs and labor unions because he knew the majority of white, well-heeled Broadway ticket buyers wouldn't support it, even in the supposedly racially progressive North.
Purlie Victorious runs through May 13 at the Undermain Basement Space, 3200 Main St., Deep Ellum. Call (214) 521-5070.
For Soul Rep's production of Davis' comedy of racial guises and disguises, directors Anyika McMillan Herod and Tonya Davis have located a glorious acting tone--somewhere between silly and sincere, cartoonish and sorrowful, although in general far more realistic than the shrill black- and white-face caricatures that must have mugged their way through less skilled interpretations. Even the cotton-picking Uncle Tom here, Gitlow (Douglas Carter), eases into moments of genuine impatience and common sense while enlisted in a plan by self-anointed preacher Purlie Judson (Anthony Golden) to retrieve a barn he wants to use as a church. He coerces Lutibelle (a delightful Lisa Baker), a young woman who's spent her life in "white folks' kitchens," to pose as the heir of a former employee of whip-cracking Georgia cotton tyrant Cap'n Cotchipee (David Benn, looking like Colonel Sanders and a step behind the rest of the performers with his one-note stridency). Benn aside, directors McMillan Herod and Davis have helped an eloquent cast infuse their roles with a dignity that some might complain has blunted Ossie Davis' satiric scalpel. What comes to the fore is the playwright's soaring, stately language, which is worth sacrificing a few cheap laughs. In the end, Soul Rep's is the kind of approach that will keep his script relevant for decades to come.
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