Leslie Odom Jr. on His Return to Broadway in ‘Purlie Victorious’

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In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast features in-depth conversations with noteworthy actors and creators. Join host and senior editor Vinnie Mancuso for this guide to living the creative life from those who do it every day.

When “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch” started previews at the Music Box Theatre on Sept. 7, it wasn’t just Leslie Odom Jr.’s first time on Broadway since his Tony-winning run as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton.” He’s taking on the title role in Kenny Leon’s revival of Ossie Davis’ 1961 play: a traveling preacher who was first portrayed by the playwright himself. Three years later, the effects of a dark 2020 still weigh heavily on the theater community—and on Odom himself.

“Theater as a whole really is fighting for its place on the American stage, for its usefulness and its value to us,” the actor says. “But it feels as necessary and as valuable as ever before to me. So [the company of ‘Purlie Victorious’] is going to fight the good fight. We literally couldn’t have a better text, and we couldn’t have better themes. We will have our work cut out for us, but I think we’re set up to follow through with our intention.”

On this episode of In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast, Odom takes us behind the scenes of his Broadway homecoming. 

Odom’s passion for performing theater stems from his love of watching theater. 

“Every ticket I buy to every Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, or Broadway show…I am going into that theater desperate to be moved. I want to see something true. I want to see something dangerous. I want to see something new. I want to see something bold. I want to see something beautiful. That’s what gives me the strength to go back out there into these mean streets. I come in thirsty. I come in hungry. 

It’s why it’s so disappointing—I won’t mention any names—when we fall down on the job and when we don’t take our responsibility as seriously as we ought to. I desperately want to be a part of making the kind of theater that I want to see, and that has been most valuable and useful to me. [That’s when it feels] dangerous and exciting and present, when something is happening in front of me, and it feels like it’s happening for the very first time. There’s an urgency to that and a passion in what [the actors are] doing. That’s what we’re trying to do: We’re just trying to make the kind of theater that we love.”

Leslie Odom Jr.

Courtesy Telecharge/Broadway Inbound

When Odom made his Broadway debut at age 17 in “Rent,” he came to a realization he still thinks about to this day.   

“I had this experience on my third or fourth night on Broadway, this revelation. I half-expected that when I became a Broadway performer, when I got invited to join the company [of ‘Rent’], that somehow, magic dust would get sprinkled over me as I went [through] the stage door. I would then be a Broadway actor, because once you walk through that door, now you’re different. 

I had the realization that: Oh, my God—I’m doing the exact same thing that I did in church basements, that I did on my high school stage, that I did in my mom’s living room. There’s absolutely nothing different. So that must mean that Broadway was with me before Broadway, and I take Broadway with me everywhere I go. That’s the integrity we have as performers. If the cast showed up here, right now, and we had five or six people in this living room and we were going to do ‘Purlie Victorious,’ I would give you the same performance that I’m going to give you at the Music Box.”

Even though Odom has performed on Broadway before, “Purlie Victorious” is a new experience for him in a few key ways. 

“This is the first professional [non-musical] play that I’ve done on Broadway. It’s also, remarkably, the first time I’ve ever spoken words written by a Black author on a stage, which is also a really interesting experience—because as a Black performer, I spend quite a bit of my time translating. 

There’s usually a fair amount of my process that is about talking to a writer to say, ‘Here are the changes I think we should make. Here’s how I think it would maybe sit better now that you cast me.’ Or if they won’t change it, I’m doing that science and math problem in my head to figure out: Well, how do I make this make sense to me? So with [‘Purlie Victorious’], there is something really powerful that happens when something is written in your native tongue.” 

Subscribe to In the Envelope to hear our full conversation with Odom: