'Purlie' opens Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe season in Sarasota

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe offers classic about the Jim Crow South

mclear@bradenton.comNovember 17, 2013 

"Purlie" was one of the biggest musicals of the early 1970s. It made stars of Cleavon Little -- who became the first African-American actor to win a Tony for leading role in a musical -- and Melba Moore, who also won a Tony and had a hit with the show's most famous song, "I Got Love."

It's had a few revivals over the years, but it's not performed often these days. Now it's leading off the 2013-14 season this weekend for the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.

"You don't see it much anymore because in one way so much has changed," said Jim Weaver, who's directing the WBTT production. "But in another way, not much has changed at all."

"Purlie" revolves about a Jim Crow-era preacher named Purlie Victorious Judson. He's been driven out of his Southern home town by a cruel plantation owner named Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee.

"Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee is, for lack of a better term, a stereotypical Southern slavedriver," Weaver said.

Purlie comes back to town and sets in motion a plan to get back an inheritance that Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee has stolen. Purlie wants to use the money to save the town's church and emancipate the oppressed workers on Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee's plantation.

Of course, things go awry.

"That when the madcap hilarity begins," Weaver said.

It's not altogether hilarious, though. Serious issues about civil rights underpin the comedy, and some of the characters face serious consequences.

"Purlie" had its roots in an earlier straight play called "Purlie Victorious" by Ossie Davis.

The straight play came to Broadway in 1961, when the civil rights movement was very much on everyone's minds, and Davis was one the movement's most prominent figures. It starred Davis as Purlie, his wife Ruby Dee as Lutiebell and Sorrell Brooke and as Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee's and a young

Alan Alda as his son.

All four also appeared in the film version, 1963's "Gone Are the Days!"

Composer Gary Geld collaborated with Peter Udell and Philip Rose to create "Purlie." They kept so much of Davis' original play that they listed him first among the writers of the book.

America has a very different race-relations climate these days than when either "Purlie Victorious" or "Purlie" first hit the stage, but Weaver said this is a perfect time for people to rediscover Davis' ideas and characters and the sings of geld and Udell.

"I feel that with movies like 'The Butler' and '12 Years a Slave,' people are starting to talk about these issues again," Weaver said.

The script calls for the action to be set in "the not-too-distant past." The WBTT production is set in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

"I was tempted for a minute to contemporize it, and bring it into a more modern era," he said. "But that idea didn't last too long. The way people talk, some of the language that use in speaking to each other, people just don't talk like that anymore."

One measure of how seldom "Purlie" is staged these days is that the young, largely African-American cast was not familiar with it. What had once been a staple of African-American theater is now obscure.

"A lot of the cast didn't know any of these songs," Weaver said. "I was surprised how unfamiliar they were."

The audience at the first preview performance earlier this week, who were generally older than the cast members, knew it a little better.

"The older generation I think will recognize these songs," he said. "We had our first preview and you could see that people recognized these songs and sang along. And they laughed in the places I wanted them to laugh. They loved it."

Details: Through Dec. 15 at West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: are $29.50. Call 941-366-1505 or go to www.wbttroupe.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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