This production of the award-winning 1970 musical is the first to be performed outside the US. The show serves an opener for this year's black history month, regularly held in October.
The story is a simple one (and it's not clear why it took three people to write it). The charismatic preacher, Purlie Victorious wants to reclaim his church from the grasping hands of Ol' Captain Cotchipee, the landowner who has all the cotton workers in hock to him. Purlie devises a plan to acquire the money to buy the church back.
The play is clearly a product of its time and in parts does seem dated. It's based on the 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, and is set in that period. The debate about integration might not seem relevant today, but the instances of entrenched racism certainly are.
At times, especially in a lengthy monologue by Purlie in the second act, it displays its straight play origins. Sometimes the sermonising can get a little heavy for a musical comedy and is probably unnecessary. The songs themselves tell more about the black experience than the history lessons do. In fairness, though, the concept of a black history would have been a revolutionary one in the early 60s so that might be a retrospective judgment.
Whatever the faults of the play, this is a joyous evening. Omar F Okai's direction doesn't let up and never lets the serious nature of the subject matter drown the musical excitement. And there are some enthusiastic performances from the cast. Tee Jaye is a charismatic Purlie. Mykal Rand makes a wonderfully cynical "deputy of the coloured" Gitlaw, who's not the lapdog he seems. And there's especially endearing performance by Victoria Wilson James as Aunt Missy. The only downside is John Lyons' too-soft Cotchipee; it's hard to imagine why the workers are so fearful of this Colonel Sanders look-alike.
Purlie is not a show that is going to knock you out with its clever lyrics or its exciting choreography. But even after 30-odd years, it still packs a powerful punch. With its clever combination of powerful polemic and catchy songs, this is an excellent evening, another success for the Bridewell.
- Maxwell Cooter