Purlie (1981)

Rated Not Rated

Starring: Robert Guillaume, Melba Moore, Sherman Hemsley and Clarice Taylor

Not Rated Musical/Comedy/Family

Purlie is set at the beginning of the civil rights movement when segregation was still practiced in the American South.  Reverend Purlie Victorious Johnson (Robert Guillaume) experiences conditions that are akin to slavery throughout his travels to various areas, including his own hometown in Georgia.

He has returned to the plantation of Ol’ Cap’n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee (Brandon Maggart) where he and his family worked as sharecroppers.  Purlie has learned a long-lost relative has inherited monies and Cap’n Cotchipee is holding the funds.  Purlie plans to retrieve the resources, in hopes of liberating those who are practically slaving away on the land tract as well as save the community church, Big Bethel. 

However, he has no way to locate this cousin.  Enlisting the cooperation of several on the plantation, including Lutiebell Gussie Mae Jenkins (Melba Moore), who has a crush on Purlie; and Charlie Cotchipee (Don Scardino), the liberal-hearted son of Ol’ Cap’n, Purlie devises a scheme in order to attain his goals. 

Will Reverend Purlie Victorious be able to succeed in achieving his goals … and at what costs?  It definitely is worth viewing to find out how it ends!

Purlie, the musical, is based upon the 1961 play, Purlie Victorious, that was written by Ossie Davis.  Davis’ book was converted into a film, Gone Are the Days, which was released in 1963.  The movie starred actors, including Davis, Ruby Dee, Beah Richards, Sorrell Booke, Godfrey Cambridge and Alan Alda, from the original Broadway cast.

Phillip Rose adapted the book into a musical, with Peter Udell, who created the lyrics, and Gary Geld, who composed the music.  Purlie premiered at the Broadway Theatre in March 1970 and had a run of six hundred and eighty-eight performances.  The Broadway cast featured Cleavon Little  (who was later replaced by Guillaume), Melba Moore, C. David Colson, John Heffernan and Helen Martin.  For their roles, Cleavon Little earned the Tony Award for “Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical” and a Drama Desk Award for “Outstanding Performance”; Melba Moore won the Tony Award for “Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical”, the Drama Desk Award for “Outstanding Performance” and the Theatre World Award.

In 1981, Showtime, a premium cable television network, presented an adaption, Purlie, for television.  This showing is from a short run of the musical that was performed at the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx borough of New York City.  There are differences between this television version, the Broadway version and the original film; however, the television version, like the others, has become a favorite of many viewers!