Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Starring the author in the title role, Purlie Victorious ran for 261 performances when first produced. Critics were divided about the play. The reviewer for The New York Times, Howard Taubman, praised it as an affirmation of progress and change, a “farce with a slashing viewpoint” that “provokes as it disarms.” Ebony, published primarily for African Americans, noted with approval Eleanor Roosevelt’s comment that “mixed with the humor there is intelligent, incisive commentary on segregation, discrimination and the slow pace of integration.”
Others were less enthusiastic. In the Saturday Review of Literature, Henry Hewes admired the satire but found the characters uninvolving and the plot predictable. Edith Oliver, writing in The New Yorker, found the play similar to many left-wing dramas of the 1930’s for its simplistic heroes and villains. Accusing Davis of “playing it safe,” Oliver argued that to make the Ol’ Cap’n the symbol for the realities of racism and segregation was to imply that the problems were easily solved. Robert Brustein, drama critic of The New Republic, was appalled at the message of Purlie Victorious, claiming that the play “set back inter-racial harmony, by my calculations, about fourteen years.” He was disturbed by the “hate and violence under the shut-my-mouf benevolence of these cardboard characters.”
The satirical and humorous approach was a contentious issue for critics. Can such techniques be applied to serious issues? The play was translated into film in 1963 under the title Gone Are the Days. Davis remained active in the movement for African American rights. He received many awards for his writing and acting and for his commitment to African American causes.