Kenny Leon
Kenny Leon

Why Tony Winner Kenny Leon Is Passionate About Purlie Victorious

“It’s so relevant. It’s so needed. It’s so now.”

When the Tony-winning director Kenny Leon describes his latest Broadway project, he sounds like he’s talking about a brand-new play. But audiences will be surprised to learn that the show, Purlie Victorious, isn’t a new play at all, despite its modern-day resonance. It’s a 60-year-old comedy by the late, great writer, performer, and activist Ossie Davis, given a fresh, long-overdue Broadway revival with a stellar cast led by Hamilton Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr.

Purlie Victorious follows a preacher who returns to the Georgia plantation where he was raised, bringing with him an attractive young lady and a comic scheme to buy his hometown church.

The play’s subtitle is A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch and Leon’s aim in staging the piece is to unite audiences with humor. “I want to open a door for everyone to be able to laugh out loud together,” he says. “In this country right now, it seems to me that if people have different political affiliations, they can’t even sit down together and laugh with each other. This play reminds me of a time when we could do that.”

Leon’s production also marks the long-awaited Broadway return of Odom, the Oscar-nominated actor (One Night in Miami) who hasn’t appeared on the New York stage since he won that Tony for his performance as Aaron Burr in Hamilton. The role of Purlie is a tall order for any actor — and Leon is wowed by Odom’s performance.

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

“This part is massive,” the director says. “It’s poetic. It’s physical. It’s comedic. It’s dramatic. And Leslie delivers like the major artist that he is.”

The rest of the cast is stacked with some of Broadway’s brightest talents portraying all the comic characters who complicate Purlie’s plans. Among the standouts is Kara Young, the fast-rising actor who earned back-to-back Tony nominations, first last year (for Clyde’s) and then earlier this year (for Cost of Living). She costars alongside theater veterans including Jay O. Sanders (Girl From the North Country) and Heather Alicia Simms (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), as well as Billy Eugene Jones, who turned heads last season with his double role in Fat Ham.

With Purlie Victorious, Odom and his cast are bringing back a play that hasn’t been seen on Broadway since its 1961 premiere. For most audiences, this new staging will be their first exposure to the tale; those who do know the story are most likely to have encountered it in the 1970 musical adaptation, Purlie.

As fans of Hamilton well know, Odom is a singer and could certainly have starred in a song-filled version of Purlie’s story. But for Leon, the choice was simple. “The play is better,” he says. “The play is the source, and I wanted to go to the source of the genius.”

The director hopes his Purlie will shine a light on the legacy of Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee, who originated the role now played by Young. In addition to being storied performers, Davis and Dee were also fierce voices in the civil rights era, pushing for change and marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“They’re the king and queen of Black arts and activism in America,” Leon says. “They’re important.”

He traces a direct line between Davis and Dee and his own career as one of Broadway’s busiest directors, with a résumé that includes four Tony Award-winning productions including Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, A Soldier’s Play, Fences, and A Raisin in the Sun that also won him a Tony Award as Best Director. “All these great artists and activists, like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, made it possible for me to even have a career in theater, so I have a responsibility to honor their hard work,” he says.

Like Davis, Leon has a profound commitment to making socially engaged art. “My mother always thought I was going to be a minister,” he says, laughing. “I always had this awareness of what’s happening in our world, and I have a responsibility to do shows that impact the world in a positive way, and tell stories that don’t get told.”

The cast of Purlie Victorious. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.
The cast of Purlie Victorious. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

For Leon, part of the appeal of Purlie Victorious lies in its political message. “It’s a story about America, and about how every generation has to fight for democracy and fight for the country,” he says. “Now is no different.”

But judging from the reactions of early audiences, Leon has found that Purlie Victorious is affecting people’s hearts as well as their minds. “People keep finding me at the end of the show,” he explains. “People in tears of joy, saying, ‘Thank you. I didn’t know I needed that.’”

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