The Dee Davis Family Credit: Linda Armstrong photo

Wednesday, September 27, 2023 is an evening that will forever be in my mind, because that is the day that history was made on Broadway as Ossie Davis’ classic comedy “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through The Cotton Patch” had its official opening night at The Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street. The play, which had not been seen on Broadway since the early 1960s at the Cort Theatre and originally starred Ossie Davis and his wife Ruby Dee, was finally back on Broadway with a revival that does them both proud.

So many people came out to celebrate, and it was made very much possible by Jeffrey Richards, who is not only one of the lead producers on the production, but who has been working towards mounting it on Broadway for over 20 years. It was Richards who approached the Dee Davis adult children Hasna Muhammad, Nora Davis Day and Guy Davis, and asked for their permission to produce their father’s work. Richards saw the original work and knows passages by heart.

The red carpet was filled with a great buzz of excitement and anticipation. Sharing what it meant to them for their father’s play to be performed after all these many years on Broadway, Nora Davis said, “What a tribute it is to him and to his artistry. We feel him all around us. It means everything to us as a family, and that the show is timeless and so well received just means a lot, especially in this climate. We’re just excited as a family to be together and honor him and honor our mom this way and also just the genius of the play and we miss him…This was a cosmic moment, so many people coming to us to do this play, the producers and of course Leslie, who really wanted to do this. There was a coming together of people who felt that this was the time for the play, so we said yes.” 

Linda Armstrong photos

Hasna Muhammad said, “It means the world because everyone is honoring dad. They are listening to the words that are so relevant today and it makes us proud that the words that he wrote, the message that he gave us, is being listened to and revered all over again…. so it just means a lot because people are paying attention.” 

“It feels wonderful,” said Guy Davis. Pointing to the hat he was wearing he shared that he wore it because it was his Dad’s hat and he was glad that everyone was there to celebrate his father spiritually through this uplifting play.

The Dee Davis family discussed the poetry of the words in their father’s writing, and Muhammad pointed out that Guy created the music that is played between scenes, which  definitely contributes to the seamless flow of the production. Day said, “This evening is a full-circle moment for us and wherever their sweet spirits are, I know they are happy tonight.”

Sade Lythcott, CEO of National Black Theatre is one of the producers behind the production, which is their second to be produced on Broadway after “Fat Ham.” Lythcott says she was delighted to be there. “Ossie Davis is the foundation for Black theater. He and Ruby birthed what it means to be in service of art and activism and that’s the intersection that National Black Theatre always wants to represent. Also, Ossie was such good friends with my mom, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, founder of National Black Theatre, so I grew up with this story [and] with the family, and it felt right for our sophomore Broadway show to be the revival and the first revival of ‘Purlie.’”

Director Kenny Leon, who is also a producer on the play, took a moment to explain the question of why Broadway and why now? “I think that America is in dire need of this production. Number one, we forgot how to sit next to each other and laugh, even amongst our differences, and so it’s just a play about basic humanity. So it reminds us of that and also reminds us,‘what kind of world do we want to leave to our grandkids?’ And thirdly, it’s just the greatness of Ossie Davis. He was a great poet, a great activist, a great artist, and not enough folks have witnessed his greatness, so the fact that this play hasn’t been done in 63 years says a lot. I’m really proud to be that person to bring Ossie Davis to now. He wrote this play in ‘61, but he wrote it clearly about now, and every generation has to fight for freedom and democracy and our time to fight for that and leave a better world for our grandkids is now. I couldn’t think of a better play to do. It invites white and Black, yellow and brown to see it. It invites all of our differences—gay, trans, whatever. It invites all of our differences to meet us halfway, to remind us of what makes a more beautiful world.” Describing the language of the play, Leon said, “It is fiercely poetic, the play lives somewhere between rage and hope and the music of the play is in Ossie’s portrait.

“This play embraces vaudeville and other types of theater. I hope people laugh all the way through to the last scene, and then the last scene is what I’m getting to. My job is to keep people laughing until that last church scene and then … Leslie is able to then deliver the truth. It’s unapologetically Black, but at the same time, it’s respecting [everybody] else’s culture,” Leon added. Regarding the cast, which features Leslie Odom Jr., Kara Young, Jay O. Sanders, Billy Eugene Jones, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Heather Alicia Simms, Noah Robbins, Noah Pyzik and Bill Timoney, Leon shared that he pushed and challenged all of them. “I told them this is the hill we have to climb. Over time we gained trust in each other. This is the best cast I’ve ever worked with.” 

Actor Russell Hornsby came to support the show and shared, “I think it’s time to resurrect shows from yesterday, peer at them with a different lens and see where the time is now versus then, in terms of our form of expression [and] our artistry. You want to look at how things have evolved from then until now. How are we looking at a work from the ‘60s and putting a 2023 lens on it and how are we able to elevate the story that is being told in that time. When we’re dealing with aspects of racism, segregation and the ability to shapeshift how does that take form today versus yesteryear? How much of that has changed and how much hasn’t? What games are we continuing to play that gives us the win or where we have to take the loss possibly? I think it’s just a constant challenge for us creatively to take stock of where we’re going and where we’ve been.”

Tony Award winning actress Melba Moore shared what “Purlie Victorious” being on Broadway now meant to her. “It’s timely and it withstood the test of time. It played a role in Black people breaking into Broadway theater and we’ve not only lasted, we’ve grown. We’ve become foundational, we’ve expanded. The Great White Way is still here, but it’s not just white anymore, it means a lot. Considering that starring as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in the musical version of this play “Purlie” launched her career and won her a Tony Award, Moore had these words for Ossie Davis. “God bless you. You were way ahead of her time.”

“It’s very apparent that the story is timeless and certainly it means that we know who to keep saluting, to keep honoring as they honor us with their work. Of course, with Leslie at the helm and working with Ossie and Ruby’s family, it’s very exciting how they are working to bring this to Broadway,” shared actress Kim Fields, also in attendance.

Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper was on hand with his son Eddie Cooper. Talking about the importance of the production coming to Broadway over six decades later Cooper said, “Oh my gosh, it’s just amazing! I just wish Ossie and Ruby could be here for this because it’s just so wonderful. And Guy Davis did the music for it. I have a soft spot in my heart for this play, because it was the first big role that I did in college. I played Purlie, all those many years ago. I’m thrilled that it’s here and we get to celebrate and check it out tonight.”

Justin Guarini, recently seen in “Once Upon a One More Time” on Broadway, was also on hand. “I think a society that doesn’t pay attention to its history is doomed to repeat the same mistakes. I had the great fortune when I was younger to hang out with Ossie Davis and he was always this warm, wonderful, kind person. Many people know him as an actor. But I think this is an opportunity to not only showcase him as a writer, but to take a look back into our history to see a fictionalized version of the things that were happening. It’s just so important for us to look back at our history so that we don’t make the same mistakes.”

Daniel Beaty, playwright and actor, who was discovered by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, attended the Opening Night with high spirits. “Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were my biggest mentors when they were alive. I really credit my career to them and their belief and their support. Early when Ms. Dee first saw me in Times Square. She saw me with a very small audience and she said this should be done in stadiums. She and Mr. Davis presented my work all over the country starting with the National Black Theatre Festival. This play being on Broadway after all this time is deeply moving to me because of their legacy, [and] also because Mr. Davis’ work is still so prevalent. The issues of race that the play talks about we’re obviously still dealing with in our country today.”

Going into the theater, the energy in the room was filled with excitement and a great Black theater family vibe! It was a who’s who moment as so many phenomenal people were there including producers LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Irene Gandy, Jeffrey Richards, and Nicolette Robinson. As you looked around, celebrities were everywhere including Rev. Al Sharpton, Spike Lee, Laurence Fishburne and so many others.

“Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through The Cotton Patch” is one of the funniest and most charming plays you will get to see this season. Opening night was a memory I will always cherish. This play, a comedic reminder of our shared humanity. should be shared by families of every race. “Being colored can be a lot of fun when ain’t nobody looking,” so says Missy Judson. This is a play that you definitely want to look at and experience with the ones you love, so that all of you can share the blessing of laughter and being uplifted.  

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