As a result, some touchy old stereotypes, appropriated by whites and perverted as minstrelsy, are reclaimed and reframed. Gitlow’s shucking and jiving is, in Jones’s performance, very clearly a performance itself: a way of getting around the obtuseness of overlords. His wife, Missy, played by Heather Alicia Simms, turns classic one-dimensional stage sass into complicated warmth. Vanessa Bell Calloway’s Idella, a cook who works for Ol’ Cap’n and might in other contexts be framed as a Mammy figure, here has a freedom fighter’s acuity. And even Ol’ Cap’n himself, the snarling villain of the piece, is taken down gently: “Put kindness in your fingers,” Purlie instructs a pallbearer. “He was a man — despite his own example.”
But it’s Odom who carries the play’s weight as it shifts from genre to genre and reveals further layers of character. Part of the freedom Davis took for himself, and that Leon emphasizes in his staging, is the right to be many things at once, not all of them reputable.
Odom, with the angry intensity of his Burr from “Hamilton,” does not shy from Purlie’s scoundrelly side, his willingness to lie, even to loved ones, as a means of putting down a marker on eventual truth. And yet when it comes time to preach, watch out. The way he winds speeches into sermons and sermons nearly into songs makes it seem natural that “Purlie Victorious,” written partly in blank verse, would be turned into a musical. It nearly was one already.
Was it also a loving dig at the great orator himself? Davis disagreed with King about nonviolence but could hardly dispute his silver-tongued leadership. And in “Purlie” he seemed to give Kingism a chance. After mercilessly mocking the trope of the Great White Savior, he allows Charlie Cotchipee, the weakling son of Ol’ Cap’n — a role played by Alan Alda in 1961 and Noah Robbins now — to save the day and redeem his race.
“We still need togetherness; we still need each otherness,” Purlie preaches in the final, forgiving moments of this necessary revival, as Derek McLane’s set undergoes a miraculous transformation from shack to temple. And then Purlie adds, “Do what you can for the white folks.”
Speaking as one, they did.
Through Jan. 7 at the Music Box, Manhattan; purlievictorious.com. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.