The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Purlie Victorious relates Purlie’s dream of becoming a preacher to the African American community in southern Georgia, where he and his family live and where little has changed over the generations. However, during the 1950’s, change has begun. Reference is made to the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycotts, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Purlie is influenced by all of these, but his motives come primarily from within himself and his own experiences as an African American in the traditional South.

Twenty years earlier, Purlie had been beaten by the white owner of the plantation, Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee, and he has neither forgotten nor forgiven. Self-educated, a rebel and a dreamer, Purlie has gone through several metamorphoses and has finally settled on the role of a preacher. He preaches not of a heaven obtainable only after death but of a new heaven on earth, a heaven of freedom, a word he often invokes. He needs a church, and he chooses Big Bethel, an old barn that in the past had held a black congregation. To acquire Big Bethel, Purlie must obtain a $500 inheritance left to a deceased member of the Judson family, an inheritance controlled by the Ol’ Cap’n. Purlie plots to have a young black woman, Lutiebelle Jenkins, impersonate the dead heir.

Unfortunately for Purlie but fortunately for the play, things do not go according to plan. In this satire on the people, institutions, and racism of the Old South, Davis created broad stereotypes. Purlie’s choice to have Lutiebelle impersonate the dead Cousin Bee is from the beginning an unlikely prospect. Lutiebelle looks nothing like Cousin Bee. Cousin Bee had been a college student, while Lutiebelle’s background is that of a servant. Purlie likely chose Lutiebelle because, perhaps unconsciously, he was attracted to her looks and personality. Lutiebelle’s personal desires are primarily domestic, but she is willing to do her best for Purlie, and he coaches her for the crucial meeting with Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee.

Another difficulty for Purlie comes from his brother, Gitlow. Unlike Purlie, Gitlow has seemingly made his peace with the existing social system, accommodating himself to the Ol’ Cap’n’s racist regime. Selected by the Ol’ Cap’n to be the “Deputy-for-the-Colored,” Gitlow picks cotton, spends time in the fields, and even sings spirituals for Cotchipee, spirituals with obvious themes of resignation and acceptance. Gitlow fears that the plan to impersonate Cousin Bee will not succeed and that its failure can only cause more difficulties for the African Americans on the plantation.

Gitlow is an obstacle to Purlie’s aims, but Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee also has problems, with his son, Charlie. Charlie is among the first southern whites to support the recent court decisions voiding segregation. When he expresses these opinions to his father, the Ol’ Cap’n rejects them, rhetorically asking, “Do you think ary [sic] single darky on my place would ever think of changing a single thing about the South, and to hell with the Supreme Court . . . ?” For his beliefs, Charlie is beaten by local rednecks and becomes an...

(The entire section is 1308 words.)