Restraint, reserve, deliberate pacing: These are not the calling cards of Theatre du Jour. The company comes barreling at you, full volume, larger than life and twice as fast. Intermissions? Forget about 'em, even for a three-act play like its current revival of Ossie Davis's "Purlie Victorious," which comes in at under two hours without breaking a sweat.
If ever there was a play that matched Theatre du Jour's energy, "Purlie Victorious" is it. Davis's 1961 satire was an eruption of comedy in the generally tense context of race relations. In the new production by the D.C. Arts Center and Theatre du Jour at the aptly named Warehouse Theater (little more than a hollow brick shell opposite the future Convention Center on Seventh Street NW), director B. Stanley doesn't try to drag the play into the present moment. But thanks to Davis's bodacious writing and the company's roaring performance, the show remains a surprising eruption of comedy anyway.
"Purlie Victorious" is about a fast-talking reverend (Purlie Judson, the title character) who returns to a Georgia plantation with a scheme to reclaim the church now owned by Ol' Cap'n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee, the vicious, egotistic, racist, bullwhip-toting plantation master. Dramatically, it's no contest, of course; you know all along that justice will prevail for Purlie and the exploited blacks.
The glory of "Purlie" lies in Davis's extravagant characters and exuberant language. The people in "Purlie" may be stereotypes, but they are ferocious stereotypes, so full of hot air they could float in a Thanksgiving parade. There's Gitlow Judson (Michael Price), who bows and scrapes and generally out-Toms Uncle Tom. There's Lutiebelle Jenkins (Michelle Rogers), a buxom dim bulb from Alabama who blows Purlie's scheme by proudly writing her own name on a receipt (instead of signing as the dead cousin whose inheritance she's supposed to be finagling so Purlie can buy the church). And there's Charlie Cotchipee (Quinn Hanchette), the Ol' Cap'n's liberal son.
But most of all, there's Purlie and the Cap'n, a pair of flammable characters whose combustion pretty much makes the play worthwhile. As the ornery, domineering Cap'n, B. Stanley makes Yosemite Sam seem tranquil. During one angry moment at Wednesday night's performance, Stanley's Cap'n quivered with such fury that it was hard to believe no steam came out of his ears. This may have been when he was yelling at his pacifistic son, "Are ya tryin' to get nonviolent on me, boy?"
Not to be outdone, Joseph Mills III rips through the title role with a cocky walk and a voice built for rabble-rousing oratory. Purlie is a terrific comic blusterer; at one vulnerable point he tells Lutiebelle that he never told a lie that he didn't intend to make true. During Purlie's long final speech (a great big lie that does come true, more or less), Mills bellows like Al Sharpton, glides like Muhammad Ali and almost seems to escape gravity as he skips around the stage. His smoke-blowing Purlie is the biggest target of Davis's satire, yet Purlie's spirit and rhetoric actually strike a spark--which is what makes "Purlie Victorious" such an engaging play.
To be sure, there is precious little nuance to this production. The design has the whole play unfolding on a simple square stage in a big circle of light (Ryan Palmer's floor-on-a-mound-of-dirt set is also being used for Maria Irene Fornes's "Mud," currently in rep with "Purlie"). And the acting, at times, is just plain fast and loud--so fast and so loud that it hardly seems like art.
But every time you start to lose faith in the style, someone detonates. Hysterically.
Purlie Victorious, by Ossie Davis. Directed by B. Stanley. Lights, Tim Swiss. With Angela Black, Karen Waters, Steve McClure and Jim Fay. Through Dec. 18 at the Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-462-7833.