Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
Ossie Davis left Howard University to pursue a career as a dramatist. He turned to acting to make a living but kept his dramatist dream alive. His earlier one-act play, Alice in Wonder (pr. 1952), portrayed the insidious effects of McCarthyism. Later renamed as The Big Deal (pr. 1953), the play did not fare well. Encouraged by the unprecedented success of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (pr., pb. 1959), Davis turned to writing again and Purlie Victorious was the product. He mentions in his autobiography that he went looking for a hero and found an endearing fool.
Purlie Victorious was staged on the Cort Theatre in New York City on September 28, 1961. It was acclaimed in The New York Times by Howard Taubman and reviewed by several other local theater critics. Most reviewers commended Ossie Davis for his success in taking a racially charged issue and portraying the lives of African Americans in the South in a gentle, humorous tone. The success of Purlie Victorious established Davis’s reputation and opened up the possibilities for other African American dramatists.
Despite the long run of more than 250 performances, Purlie Victorious was not a financial success. Davis appealed in vain to churches, socials, and fraternities for support. In 1963, the play was adapted for the screen under the name Gone Are the Days. In 1970 the musical Purlie (pr. 1970) was aggressively marketed to African American audiences. He published and produced two more plays: Curtain Call, Mr. Aldridge, Sir (pr. 1968, pb. 1970), a portrayal of Ira Aldridge, the famous Shakespearean actor, and Escape to Freedom (pr. 1976), the story of abolitionist Frederick Douglass as a young man, but none equaled the success of Purlie Victorious. Purlie Victorious has not been forgotten and continues to be a favorite on college campuses all across the United States.