Leslie Odom, Jr. on Returning to Broadway in Purlie Victorious

For Tony Award winner Leslie Odom Jr., Rent is not only the musical he made his Broadway debut in, but it’s his artistic compass.

“On some level, I’m just trying to be a part of Rent again and again,” says Odom. “I’m trying to be part of theater that makes me feel the way that show made me feel. That show brought me and a generation of artists to the theatre. It told us that a piece of work on Broadway could be artistically fulfilling, culturally relevant, and commercially successful. We didn’t know how hard or how rare that was, but we saw that it was possible.”

Odom’s artistic compass has proven to be spot-on, leading him to Hamilton, another musical that checked those three boxes. Now, coproducing and starring as the titular character in the first Broadway revival of Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch, which opened September 27 at the Music Box Theatre, he says he feels like he’s following the same North Star.

“There are so many things that are vying for people’s attention, time, and money. Because I know there is so much competition, I do try my best to choose, develop, and be a part of things that I believe are worthy of people’s time, attention, and hard-earned money.”

Leslie Odom Jr. and Kara Young in Purlie Victorious. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
Leslie Odom Jr. and Kara Young in Purlie Victorious. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

Written by the late Ossie Davis, Purlie Victorious “tells the story of a Black preacher’s machinations to reclaim his inheritance and win back his church.” As Purlie Victorious Judson returns to his hometown in Southern Georgia, the audience is introduced to a cast of colorful characters and satirical Southern stereotypes. Davis originated the role of Purlie when the play premiered on Broadway in 1961, with his wife, Ruby Dee, playing Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins. Davis wrote the play while he was the understudy to Sidney Poitier in the original 1959 production of A Raisin in the Sun; he adapted the play into a musical in 1970 with Philip Rose, Peter Udell, and Gary Geld.

“From its inception, this piece was meant to be an act of generosity,” says Odom. “Mr. Davis wrote in an essay about how writing and performing this role ultimately made a man out of him. He sat down to write a piece about what it was like growing up in the rural segregated South, desperately wanting to introduce us to this farm he grew up on and these people who inhabited the place, but he wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t too painful to experience.”

And so Davis wrote the story through the lens of comedy. But that doesn’t mean the exploration of important themes is watered down just for the sake of laughs. Davis uses comedy as a tool to disarm audiences before delivering his message. The New York Times review of the original 1961 production said, “Ossie Davis has passed this miracle of uninhibited and jovial speaking out in his play Purlie Victorious, which bounced and whooped into the Cort Theatre. Marvelously exhilarating. Keeps you chuckling and guffawing. It won’t let you wipe that grin off your face.”

Odom agrees. “It’s a classic. This man understands theater. The show is tremendously funny and fun. It’s all joyous. There is one painful truth that he wants to illuminate for us. He holds up the mirror and tells us a story about America — who we have been and who we could be.”

Davis was a true artivist — an artist and an activist — effortlessly combining these two skill sets to inform his work. As a stage and screen actor, writer, and director, he refused to perpetuate Black caricatures and stereotypes. He and Dee used their artistic knowledge when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appointed them master and mistress of ceremonies for the 1963 March on Washington. In their roles, they worked with Bayard Rustin “on the flow and what entertainment should be involved.” Davis even gave eulogies for civil rights movement icons Malcom X and Dr. King.

Martin Luther King Jr. with the original Broadway cast of Purlie Victorious. Photo by Thomas E. Poag.
Martin Luther King Jr. with the original Broadway cast of Purlie Victorious. Photo by Thomas E. Poag.

The admiration between Davis and King was mutual, with King attending Purlie Victorious’s 100th performance celebration at the Cort Theatre. As for Odom’s dream guest?

“I’d really love it if President Obama and Michelle came through at some point. The invitation to the White House is the most memorable and meaningful of the whole Hamilton experience for me. I think that it would be so cool to show them what I’m working on now, and what their support, time, and attention has led me to. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them, if it wasn’t for the support and generosity they showed for the last production I was a part of.”

Odom has been pursuing this project since he departed Hamilton on July 9, 2016, and now it marks his return to the Broadway stage since his Tony Award–winning performance as Aaron Burr. Since then, his career has continued to ascend: He has starred in movies like Murder on the Orient Express and Glass Onion, and earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami. He also released a solo album titled Mr, as well as two Christmas albums. For this Broadway outing, it’s Odom’s first time acting in a play instead of a musical.

Leslie Odom Jr. in Purlie Victorious. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
Leslie Odom Jr. in Purlie Victorious. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

“It feels really wonderful to come back to New York and discover something new about myself and to reveal something new about myself,” he says. “I’ve gotten used to not singing all the time, with the movies I’ve done in Hollywood, but I’m excited for Broadway audiences to see that. It’s a dream come true.”

He credits this confidence, in part, to working with his director Kenny Leon. This revival feels like in perfect artistic alignment for the Tony Award–winning director, who has plenty of experience revitalizing plays set in the past for a contemporary audience. He has helmed a host of plays, from August Wilson’s Century Cycle as well as Ohio State MurdersAmerican SonThe Mountaintop, and two revivals of A Raisin in the Sun, the latter of which earned him his Tony Award.

“There’s nobody like Kenny Leon. He led us down the path toward building trust in several different ways: with the material, trusting every single word on this page since we didn’t have the playwright to talk to; with our director as a truth-teller, somebody who is going to hold the line and hold us accountable; and then finally, with each other, with the people we are telling this story every night. He made an ensemble out of us.”

Odom continues to find notions within Purlie the character and Purlie the play that he relates to. Any experiences and emotions that might be stirring within him are brought to the theatre and channeled into his performance. The results of the process, he says, have been lots of learning, lots of fun, and lots of healing. It’s clear that Odom’s artistic compass has led him to another treasure trove within the theatrical wilderness.

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