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...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Purlie Victorious satirizes the old southern traditions and stereotypes. The play revolves around the attempt of the protagonist, Purlie, to buy back the Big Bethel Church (actually a barn that was used as a church) from Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee, commonly known as the Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee. The Ol’ Cap’n is a firm believer in segregation. Purlie has returned to buy back the old barn and start his own church. His plan to obtain money by outwitting the old man is at the heart of this farce.

The money in question belonged to Purlie’s deceased aunt, who had received a legacy of five hundred dollars from her mistress. The money is now in the custody of Ol’ Cap’n. The Ol’ Cap’n is unaware that Bee, Purlie’s cousin and the lawful inheritor of the money, has recently died. Purlie plans to dupe Ol’ Cap’n by having Lutiebelle impersonate Bee and claim her inheritance. Purlie’s brother and sister-in-law doubt if Purlie can fool the old man.

The second scene shifts to the commissary office. Charlie Cotchipee, brought up by Idella Landy after his mother died in childbirth, is the awakened liberal, a believer in the rights of African Americans. He is nursing a broken nose as a result of a scuffle at the local bar, where he voiced his integrationist ideas publicly. His father berates his “Yankee propaganda.” Going over the accounts, Charlie objects to the continuing practice at the commissary to sell spoiled flour, rotten beans, and tainted meat to the workers. The Ol’ Cap’n, however, sees no need to change the tradition. When the son points out that every family owes them so much money that they would never be able to get out of debt, the Ol’ Cap’n retorts, “It’s the only way to keep them working.” Gitlow, trusted by the old man, arrives to announce the arrival of “Cousin Bee.” The Ol’ Cap’n is so bent on convincing Charlie that his segregationist views are...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Ossie Davis uses structure, dialogue, and caricature as the primary means of conveying his satire on the southern segregationist way of life. All the three acts of the play, except for the last scene at the newly acquired church, are set on the plantation. The dialogue, the primary means of character development, uses dialect, black idiom, and malapropisms to enliven the scenes, and the ensuing laughter gently draws attention to the underlying unfairness of the world faced by African Americans. For instance, when the Ol’ Cap’n is trying to establish that he is a caring man, he notes, “My ol’ Confederate father told me on his deathbed: feed the Negras first—after the horses and cattle—and I’ve done it evah time!” He worries, “What’s gonna become of ’em . . . afer I’m gone?” When Purlie questions Lutiebelle’s attitude toward her race, she retorts, “Oh, I am a great one for race pride, sir, believe me—it’s just that I don’t need it much in my line of work.”

Incongruity and exaggeration are perfect tools for showing the absurdity of the situation. All the characters are caricatures; hence they draw the audiences’ attention to their idiosyncrasies. Davis uses contrast as an effective means of highlighting characters. The old man and his son Charlie hold contrary views about the rights of African Americans in the new South. Purlie and his brother Gitlow present another contrast: Gitlow is the Uncle Tom figure, while Purlie is the “New Negro” ready to claim his rightful place. Ida and Missy, the counterparts of the old house and field slaves, are reminders of the old system. Deceased Cousin Bee, who was struggling to educate herself, is the opposite of Lutiebelle, a bumbling, uneducated young woman who blindly reiterates what her mistress says. In portraying these characters, Davis laughs with the black characters, never at them.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Abramson, Doris E. Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre, 1925-1959. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. This work concentrates on African American playwrights from the 1920’s through the 1950’s, but the author includes perceptive comments on Davis and other writers of the 1960’s.

Brustein, Robert. “Down Among the Dead Men.” The New Republic 145 (November 6, 1961): 22. In this critical review of Purlie Victorious, Brustein interprets the play as giving encouragement to racial antagonisms and potential violence.

Hatch, Robert. “Theatre.” The Nation 193 (October 14, 1961): 254-255. In this liberal journal and traditional defender of African American rights, Hatch praises Davis’s work as a considerable achievement but fears that the author’s tone was uncertain concerning whether the characters knew they were being humorous.

Hewes, Henry. “Laughing Matters.” Saturday Review of Literature 44 (October 14, 1961): 78. This review in an influential national publication is generally favorable. The reviewer would like to have seen even more satire and categorizes the work as a “cheerful comedy.”

Hill, Herbert, ed. Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Included in this collected work are articles by and about such writers as Arna Bontemps, LeRoi Jones, Harvy Swados, and Richard Wright. Includes a valuable discussion by Ossie Davis of his aims and ambitions in writing Purlie Victorious.

Oliver, Edith. The New Yorker 37 (October 7, 1961): 130. A generally critical review. Oliver claims that the plot is unconvincing and that perhaps satire and stereotyping were insufficient techniques to explore serious and complicated social problems.

Sternlicht, Sanford. A Reader’s Guide to Modern American Drama. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2002. Compares Davis and his dramatic output to other signficant American playwrights.