Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the published edition of Purlie Victorious, Davis gave his justification for the play:Our churches will say that segregation is immoral because it makes perfectly wonderful people, white and black, do immoral things. Our courts will say segregation is illegal because it makes perfectly wonderful people, white and black, do illegal things. And, finally, our theatre will say segregation is ridiculous because it makes perfectly wonderful people, white and black, do ridiculous things.

In Purlie Victorious, whites and African Americans do many ridiculous things. The play is a comedy, a farce, and a satire, and its characters are stereotypes. Purlie is the traditional African American preacher, ever influential in the black community, with a great gift of language. Gitlow “gits low” in his acceptance of the system. Among the whites, Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee symbolizes the historical reality of racial intolerance in the white-dominated South. The Ol’ Cap’n’s bullwhip is the force that underlies the entire system of segregation. The author argues that these stereotypes were rooted in history.

Although Purlie Victorious is comedy, satire, and farce, Davis’s choice of humor was, he argued, a realistic portrayal of the African American experience. “We told jokes . . . but we weren’t telling jokes for the sake of getting off fast quips and gags. That stream of humor had to carry our sense of self, our sense of...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In Purlie Victorious, Ossie Davis turns to laughter as a means of overcoming racial bigotry. He uses stereotypes of both blacks and whites and racial clichés to make audiences laugh at the follies of all characters.

Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee owns all the land around the farm and though legal slavery is dead, he keeps economic slavery alive. Like the old plantation owners, he believes in perpetuating the myth of the shiftless, lazy, and carefree African American under a benevolent master. He makes it clear who the master is, and even trusted Gitlow is threatened with a whipping if he ever questions the Ol’ Cap’n’s orders. He is smitten by the beautiful Lutiebelle and, in the plantation tradition, considers it fair game to bed her. He has no patience with his son, who constantly reminds him that the Supreme Court has declared segregation illegal.

If the Ol’ Cap’n is the old plantation owner incarnate, Purlie and his clan play up the traditional African American stereotypes, albeit to fool the old man. In Missy’s words, Purlie has “the best second hand education.” He understands his limitations in the conservative South but believes in his ability to outwit the old man. He threatens to beat the old man for molesting Lutiebelle but in the end maintains that nonviolence is the best way to uproot segregation. He believes in the beauty of blackness, and his praise of Lutiebelle, amusing as it is with its hyperboles, is an...

(The entire section is 529 words.)