Leslie Odom, Jr. “like so many of my generation,” recalls first seeing Davis and Dee in the films of Spike Lee. “Spike revered them. He understood their importance to the culture and to the arts as a whole. And I’ll say this, their age didn’t take away their teeth. It didn’t take away their edge. They were not put out to pasture. They were still vital members of the community. In [Do the Right Thing] Ossie and Ruby represent, literally and symbolically, the conversation between generations.”
Davis and Dee were married for over 50 years and often performed on stage and screen together. As for “Spike Lee joints,” Davis appeared in seven, two of them with Dee. Both were Tony-nominated performers with 23 Broadway credit between them. Together they were given Kennedy Center Honors and inducted into the NAACP Image Awards Hall of Fame. Davis was also a Tony-nominated book writer for the musical Purlie, which was based on his play Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch.
That play is being revived this season with a new generation of actors stepping into the shoes of Davis and Dee. Tony Award-winner Odom will play Purlie Victorious Judson, the role originated by Davis in the original 1963 production, and two-time Tony nominee Kara Young will play Dee’s role, Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins. Previews begin September 7 ahead of a September 27 opening at the Music Box Theatre.
For both Odom and Young, the legacy of Davis and Dee were as much of a draw as the play itself. As a student, Young even had the opportunity to meet Dee at City College. And growing up in Harlem, she was surrounded by the couple’s impact on the community. Davis and Dee even credit their stage careers to the American Negro Theatre, which was founded in Harlem in the 1940s. “Harlem started my infatuation with them—with them as a couple, but also them as artists and activists and organizers,” says Young.
In the play, Reverend Purlie returns to his hometown in Georgia with plans to free his family from their sharecropping servitude with the help of a long-lost relative’s inheritance. Though this chat with Odom and Young occurred even before rehearsals began, “in the incubation phase” they say, both were looking forward to delving into the work and its themes.
Odom is reticent to say too much at this point; it's too early in his process and he is giving much thought to this particular play. "My training has taught me how to make strong choices and how to come in with opinions. I'm certainly not leaving my opinions out, but we're going to investigate what this play is about," he says. "I believe that something magical happens in the theatre, really, just by committing the language to memory, and committing to getting out of the way spiritually, then allowing these words from decades ago to have their way with us."
Purlie Victorious premiered on Broadway in 1961. Its place: "The cotton plantation country of the Old South." And time: "The recent past."
Young opens up a bit about what attracted her to the project. “First of all, it’s a comedy,” says Young, “and it was done 60 years ago, but it’s so relevant right now. It really investigates the hard legacy of white supremacy, and also the hard legacy of slavery and ownership over humans in this country, and so much more.” She pauses for a moment, adding, “It’s sort of a gospel of unity for humanity.”
Odom references a book he’s reading, How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith. In it, the author travels to different plantations and interviews the tour guides and tourists. “You know, we really see this happening all over the country…this fighting over how the word is passed, how the story is actually told, from whose perspective. Who is the narrator? It’s something we’re grappling with in a way that we never have before,” Odom says.
That conversation is happening in American theatre, as well. In the last two years, more care has been taken to actively include the storytelling voices that have been historically marginalized. Odom goes on, reading a quote from How the Word Is Passed:
"I've come to realize that there's a difference between history and nostalgia, and somewhere between those two is memory. Instead, I think that history is the story of the past, using all the available facts, and that nostalgia is a fantasy about the past, using no facts, and somewhere in between is memory, which is a kind of blend of history and a little bit of emotion."
Continues Odom, "I hope that our play feels like a memory. I hope that our play feels like that place in between history and nostalgia."
And again, for both the young actors, that Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee are the narrators for this work holds great importance.
“To be able to play a role that Ruby Dee originated is inexplicable. I don’t have language for it,” says Young. “And for Ossie to be the curator of the words, I can’t translate this. I can’t describe how special and magical it is for me to even step into this world.”
“And,” adds Odom, “it’s the first time [on Broadway] that I’ll be speaking the words of an African-American writer.”