What is a theater director to do when handed an alleged comedy whose text contains almost nothing that is funny? The best ones would say, “No, thanks,” and move on to the next item in the stack. Others might simply instruct the actors to shout, declaim, pull faces, wave their arms, and deliver their lines in exaggerated tones. The style will be familiar to those who have endured such screen comics as Martin Lawrence and Kevin Hart, whose lowest-common-denominator shtick rarely attracts critical rapture.

But Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch (at the Music Box Theatre) is a special case. Set in Georgia in the Civil Rights Era, it’s about blacks scheming to reclaim something from their employer, a blithely racist white plantation-owner whose ancestors enslaved the blacks’ ancestors and...


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