Ossie Davis’s masterpiece, “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch,” is returning to Broadway after 62 years! The show will begin previews at the Music Box Theatre (239 W. 45 Street) on September 7, open on September 27, and star Leslie Odom Jr. in the title role as Purlie Victorious Judson and Kara Young in the role of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, roles originally performed by Davis and his wife Ruby Dee.
(A 1970 musical version, “Purlie on Broadway,” featured Melba Moore and Cleavon Little, among others; Patti Jo and Robert Guillaume were in a 1972 revival of the musical.)
Additional cast members will include Vanessa Bell Calloway, Billy Eugene Jones, Heather Alicia Simms, Jay O. Sanders, Noah Robbins, Noah Pyzik, and Bill Timoney, with direction by Kenny Leon.
While this play is full of humor and wit, it also makes strong statements about Black people fighting for what is theirs and not letting racism get in their way. To present this play, producers had to get permission from the Dee Davis family, which was granted by their three adult children: Nora Davis Day, Hasna Muhammad, and Guy Davis. I was recently honored to interview these individuals and have them share what it was like to grow up with parents who were playwrights, actors, and activists. Theirs was an incredible household.
There is something quite heartwarming about having a family where the parents are still parents and can be hard on their children, but do it with love. They raise their children to appreciate the blessings they have and realize that they should try to be a blessing to their people in any way they can. Dee and Davis were blessings to their people through creating and equipping Black actors with a vehicle to work in on Broadway, which is what “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp In The Cotton Patch” was in the 1960s when there were no roles for Black people, especially on Broadway.
Dee and Davis meant so much in so many ways; whether you’re a theater lover or an activist, they represented all the positive things that we as a people can be for each other. Only knowing from the outside what Ruby Dee was like from several previous interviews with her and public moments of speaking with Ossie Davis, I wanted to get to know what they were like on the inside, and who better to share that than their adult children.
They talked about what “Purlie Victorious” meant to their family and reflected on Davis’a creative process, and what this play meant back then and means today. They spoke fondly of “Purlie Victorious…,” a play that took their dad five years to write, usually going to their basement to work.
When asked how they felt about the play being revived on Broadway after 62 years, each of them was happy to share their feelings. Davis proclaimed, “It makes me feel very proud and closer to my sisters in a symbolic way. It brings me back to a time when we were all quite little, living together in our home, which is where my parents did most of their work.”
Day recalled, “I remember being a little girl and knowing when it got late at night, Dad would be downstairs with a legal pad—that’s how he wrote, and he wrote in pencil and he would tape his pinky finger because when he was writing, if he wasn’t careful, he would get a callus or a blister on his pinky. When we had the opportunity to bring the play back, there was no question that we would respond to Jeffrey and others for this opportunity to get Dad’s poetic play back on Broadway.”
Muhammad said, “I was turning 5 at the time when the play was first launched on Broadway, so my memory of that time is quite different from Nora and Guy’s. One of the things it makes me feel now is certainly proud, but also another connection to my dad. My dad and I were writing buddies and we talked about writing a lot and being a playwright. This gives me that opportunity to have that conversation with him again, in being in contact with those characters, with what he himself wrote about the characters and the play. It makes me feel proud and it makes me feel closer to my dad, and it brings him back as my writing buddy, because I lost my writing buddy. It brings it all back.”
Dee and Davis starred in the original production, which played at the Cort Theatre, now the James Earl Jones Theatre. When asked what it meant to them that their father created this work and then used it as a vehicle to showcase his talent and that of his wife, each of them had an interesting response.
Davos credited family together as the main reason his father wrote himself and Dee into the production. “I think it was a way for the family to stick together in their professional capacity. You see, Mom and Dad valued the family more than they did just running off on some quick junket. Of course, they had to go on the road to make money, but it was an opportunity for them to work together and to grow together. It was something that was ahead of its time in terms of women getting important roles. But I think that Dad’s motive was more love than politics.”
Muhammad credited the need for Blacks to have more opportunities: “Mom and Dad always talked with us about the significance of having African American writers, producers, and directors and people behind the scenes, people owning the studios. And the fact that they were in a play where they were working actors was always something to be celebrated and they were glad for it and we felt happy for them, but they never lost sight that there were so many other Black actors who weren’t working. Some of them weren’t working just because they were Black and because there were no roles for Black folk.
“I think that the fact that Dad was able to write something that both he and Mom were able to perform in, but not only perform in, but perform on Broadway—this was incredible. He always told us there was a need for Black stories and roles that were meaty for Blacks. Black actors who work on Broadway and bring attention to the genre are lucky, and they never took that for granted, so they were putting their mouths where their money was when they did this play; they wrote, they performed in it, and they were telling an African story that would put Black actors to work, and that’s what they were all about.”
Day shared a surprising fact about her father: “Dad didn’t think of himself as an actor—he did it by necessity; he was a writer. Mom was 100% an actor. At the center of their relationship and the center of our family was the struggle for civil rights and human rights, and certainly our people and the love of our people and the need to bring our stories forward, be it from the cotton patch or wherever.”
Reflecting on the legacy of “Purlie Victorious,” Muhammad said, “An African American playwright has had a play on Broadway and a play that is considered a classic. The number of African American playwrights we’ve had on Broadway [is] only enough to count, and he is one of those African American playwrights who had the good fortune to have a play launched on Broadway. For the character of Purlie Victorious, the legacy speaks about manhood, about finding oneself acceptable and beautiful without needing the white gaze, and being able to use wit and the Constitution to fight segregation, to use humor to fight segregation. It’s another tool in our toolbox for the liberation of our people.
“There’s all types of art that bring different perspectives on what resistance looks and feels like …Dad…adds to those tools the value of laughter and humor and our ability to resist. And he also leaves a legacy of…the piece helped other actors launch their career like Godfrey Cambridge. It also launched the musical that launched the careers of Melba Moore and Cleavon Little. The most important thing to remember is that ‘Purlie Victorious,’ through his semantics, his story, claims his manhood and protects his property in terms of the church and uses the voices of strong women in decision-making, and I think that would be an important thing for him to leave behind for us.”
David added, “Another little piece of legacy is that Dad, in this play, mentioned the importance of voting and the fact that he brought up the Constitution, which is the crux of much news today and 2016 in particular. The whole strategy of the Civil Rights Movement had to do with making America recognize that the Constitution is for all Americans. With the Black Power movement, things changed, things evolved. I think that play was part of the legacy of important change and growth.”
Day connected her parents’ legacy to the benediction speech from the play. “I think Dad and Mom’s legacy is incredible in so many ways. We are all so grateful for that, but they have left us work to do. I just feel like that benediction, until the day I die, will always be the legacy he left us. The words in that thing—the first time I heard them was when I was 11. I was mesmerized with the rhyme. Just the brilliance, the genius of the use of the language, in that piece in the benediction, he says so much that’s not just a legacy for us—it’s a legacy for Black people in particular: Be loyal to yourself, your skin, your hair. He talks about the Constitution and the things we are entitled to. It was like a kiss and a hug to those downtrodden and oppressed, trying and struggling every day. It was a piece of writing that just says it all. And now that we have matured and evolved as people in some ways, it applies to more than Black people. His goodbye as ‘Purlie Victorious’ sticks with me as his goodbye as Dad. It stays with me. It’s a work of genius and a work of love.”
To avoid any confusion, Muhammad pointed out, “One of things we find ourselves having to do is make people realize they are going to experience the original character of Purlie Victorious in this straight play. This play is the original, the classic, the roots; it is not the musical ‘Purlie.’ ‘Gone Are The Days’ was a film spin-off. For us to come back to the original story and characters is something needed now.”
Day, Muhammad, and Davis explained aspects of their past that I’m sure are not widely known. “Dad had an encyclopedic memory and I truly think that was his genius,” Day said. “He didn’t have books—he couldn’t afford them, so he would visit the Library of Congress and he would recite things; these poems and so many things. He would pull everything in and help us gain perspective on who and why, and who and when, and that things we thought were new were not new. He was such a storyteller and ‘Purlie Victorious’ was part of that story.
“We were a family, so we had all the issues that families have. It’s not like we were on a precious cloud somewhere. They were quite down to earth, quite serious. Mom did not play—we knew how to clean behind the toilet. There was no such thing as chauffeur-driven anything—my daddy told me one time, ‘Your chauffeur is leather and tied up at the bottom of your ankles.’ They were wonderful; they didn’t want to be idealized. They wanted their love, light, and activism [to be] accessible, honest even in strife and struggle and human relationships.”
Day, Muhammad, and Davis have fond memories of their parents’ friends visiting, including Maya Angelu, Paul Robeson, and so many others. They recalled how so many famous people came to visit their parents before they were famous, to have something to eat, or maybe to get help with paying the rent, and how the house was full of performers and creativity.
“I remember when people would come over and we didn’t have furniture and people would sit on boxes. The piano was in the basement; they’d be singing down there. Piano was in the living room; there’d be singing there, doing lines, studying scripts, comparing notes. They’d bring their kids over—the Poitiers could come, W.E.B. Dubois, and Dad would explain who they were.”
Reflecting on their civil rights activities, Muhammad remembered finding a man sleeping in her sister’s bed before she went to school, then seeing a Black man in her brother’s bed, then coming downstairs and seeing a large group of Black men sleeping on the floor. She found out later this was Huey P. Newton and members of the Black Panthers party to whom her parents were giving safe haven. They recalled growing up with the FBI taping their phones, a part of their lives that was not easy. They also fondly remember going to protests with their parents as children and they have the pictures to prove it.
“It was ordinary and extraordinary,” said Day. “We were exposed to the art world, the dance and performance world, as children, so the love of those things was a part of our upbringing. There were times that we got to dress up, there were limousines and special parties. I had to shine Mommy’s shoes and the windows. We had our chores. We didn’t have a TV until there were enough Black people to watch. We would watch when their friends were on TV, but we could only watch TV on the weekend—we couldn’t watch during the school week.”
They each are carrying on their parents’ work and instilling the spirit of their parents in the seven children they have between them.
Davis is an artist. “Music is my religion, but blues is the door of the church I go into,” he said. “I sing songs that have a consciousness, songs that are beautiful, songs that are painful, songs that are sexy. I consider myself a writer and a creative artist.”
Muhammad is an educator, consultant, and photographer, and Day teaches English as a second language. Explaining her role in the family, Day said, “I’m the matriarch of the Dee-Davis family, which I take great pride in. Love is the center of this family. We are here for each other. Part of my love and my life is to keep that eternal flame lit to keep us together—keep the strand that keeps us together so that our children can continue with it.”
“Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch” will have quite a producing team: It will be led by Jeffrey Richards, Hunter Arnold, Irene Gandy, Willette and Manny Klausner, Kayla Greenspan, and Leslie Odom, Jr., who will be making his Broadway producing debut; the National Black Theatre is co-producing. For more info, visit www.purlievictorious.com/.