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June 13, 2024

A Pan of Buttermilk Biscuits: Purlie Victorious and Sustenance


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Hasna Muhammad, daughter of playwright/actor Ossie Davis, reflects on her father’s play Purlie Victorious (US/UK) and its connection to food and sustenance.


The revival of Purlie Victorious has earned nominations for several awards, including six Tony nominations, for Best Revival of a Play, Best Direction (Kenny Leon), Best Leading Actor (Leslie Odom, Jr. as Purlie Victorious), Best Featured Actress (Kara Young as Lutiebelle), Best Costume Design (Emilio Sosa) and Best Scenic Design (Derek McLane). The play was written by my father, Ossie Davis, and from the first table read in August 2023 through the 2024 award season, my sister, Nora Davis Day, my brother, Guy Davis (who wrote the interstitial music) and I have been in gratitude mode.

So many have done so much to bring Dad’s play back to Broadway, and everyone—without exception—has expressed pride in their participation and reverence for Dad’s words not only as significantly relevant and timeless, but also as classic American theatre. From the producers, the cast and the creative team to the crew, theatre managers and marketing team, there are a multitude of people to thank. We received all sorts of gifts as is the Broadway tradition, and we want to return the love. In addition to the serial hugs and multiple expressions of appreciation we have given throughout the run, Nora, Guy, and I want our part of the Broadway tradition of gift giving to not only reflect the play, but also to be something personal; something that would make the members of the Purlie Victorious production know that they will be a part of our family forever.

When my niece and designer, Imani Day, and my daughter and chef, Ihsaana Muhammad, saw Purlie Victorious for the first time, they laughed, they cried, and they were full of pride. They also connected to the production in personal ways. Imani created a thank-you card for us that entitled our Purlie Victorious family to a lifetime membership to Big Bethel Church of the New Freedom for All (Hu)Mankind.

With humor and grace, the ingenious language in Purlie Victorious carries messages of oppression, resistance, worthiness and power through a myriad of gastrointestinal metaphors and references.

Imani told me that combining the compelling archival imagery with her father Bill Day’s original design work for her grandparents was a special way to poke at her creative roots and connect with her grandparents. The feathering of the images connected the original version of the play to the revival, and the images of Mom and Dad as Purlie and Lutiebelle served as a reminder of their partnership in life as well as in the production. Ihsaana was inspired to create Purlie Victorious cookies. The food love affair of peanut butter and chocolate was an homage to Mom and Dad’s love for each other. When the play closed in February, Nora, Guy and I shared the card and trays of cookies with everyone at the theatre. As congratulations for all of the nominations, we are sharing another culinary delight: Big Bethel Buttermilk Biscuits.

When our family gathered around our dining room table, Dad told stories with an uncanny ability to talk, chew and laugh at the same time. Seeing Purlie Victorious brought me back to that table.  As I watched and listened night after night, I began to notice the role of food. With humor and grace, the ingenious language in Purlie Victorious carries messages of oppression, resistance, worthiness and power through a myriad of gastrointestinal metaphors and references. Purlie is the “uncrowned appetite of the age” who will eat anything, and Lutiebelle – a cooking poor child who was raised by whoever happened to be in the charge of the kitchen that day – is “as pretty as a pan of buttermilk biscuits.” Her corn dodgers would give you a “swimming in the head.” Oppression is served when Ol’ Cap’n tells Charlie to cut the price of the spoiled, rotten, tainted, and little wormy food and sell it to the “niggras.” There is brutality in the Deputy’s request for the Sheriff to “save a taste” of his assault on Purlie for him. Resistance flavors Idella’s culinary response to Ol’ Cap’n’s threat to make her stand in one spot all day and all night because she’s already finished cooking supper and “them lemon pies that [he] wanted for supper are just getting ready to burn.”

From apples to watermelon, there are more than 30 foods mentioned throughout Purlie Victorious. There are stewed, fried, and simmered foods. Pullets, turnips and ham hock sandwiches. And two of Dad’s favorites—buttermilk and the sweet potato pie that the actors really ate on stage and between shows.

Lutiebelle ruminates about picnics, fish fries, corn shuckin’s, love feasts and barbeques. Purlie asks Missy to throw some breakfast in a paper sack because of what he’s done. Missy takes back her lunch when she realizes that Purlie exaggerated the truth, and Gitlow leaves Lutiebelle with Ol’ Cap’n to help with Sunday dinner. Food is throughout Purlie’s litany about the inequitable lifestyle of Black and white folks, and it is even juxtaposed to what Black people need: freedom not fritters; courage not corn bread; fight back not fatback.” From apples to watermelon, there are more than 30 foods mentioned throughout Purlie Victorious. There are stewed, fried, and simmered foods. Pullets, turnips and ham hock sandwiches. And two of Dad’s favorites—buttermilk and the sweet potato pie that the actors really ate on stage and between shows.   

The making and taking of food played a big role in the resistance to enslavement and Jim Crow terror. Food kept Black people alive within systems of subjugation, and biscuits could be made out of nothing.

As a chef, Ihsaana was not surprised by the number of foods mentioned in Purlie Victorious. There’s such an emphasis on family in the play, and food brings family together, she says. She remembers sitting at the table with her siblings and cousins listening to their grandfather’s animated stories. She also remembers baking with Mom (Ruby Dee) and talking with her about the people who cooked food for Black folk who couldn’t be served anywhere else. Those folks aren’t often mentioned in conversations about the Civil Rights Movement, Mom told her. The making and taking of food played a big role in the resistance to enslavement and Jim Crow terror. Food kept Black people alive within systems of subjugation, and biscuits could be made out of nothing. There were probably millions of biscuits eaten from paper sacks packed for exodus and migration.

Biscuits are one of the first things I taught Ihsaana to make as a little girl, and now they’re one of her favorite things to bake. Biscuits are easy, and they can be made in so many different ways. Plant-based, gluten-free, savory or sweet. Ihsaana says she never met anybody who didn’t like a good biscuit. They just make people happy. She envisions that Big Bethel Buttermilk Biscuits would be made all the time in Cotchipee County. There’d be a pan for Gitlow when he came in from the cotton patch. There’d be a pan for Sunday dinner at Ol’ Cap’n’s house. Big Bethel Buttermilk Biscuits would be part of every celebration at Big Bethel Church of the New Freedom. And the biscuits would be served warm and lathered with huckleberry jam.

Ihsaana calls upon the ancestors to honor those who provided sustenance as resistance, and she makes intentions for each bite of her Big Bethel Buttermilk Biscuits to reclaim the food that was taken away from so many.

When I asked Ihsaana for her recipe, she wouldn’t share it with me. All she said was that when she makes a pan of Big Bethel Buttermilk Biscuits, she puts everything she has into it. She calls upon the ancestors to honor those who provided sustenance as resistance, and she makes intentions for each bite of her Big Bethel Buttermilk Biscuits to reclaim the food that was taken away from so many. She listens to music or finds herself humming as she combines organic flours, makes her own plant-based buttermilk, and uses Mom’s rolling pin to roll out the dough. Then Ihsaana adds a secret ingredient and a whole lot of love.

Although Mom used to ask Ihsaana to make biscuits for her all the time, Dad never got to know Ihsaana as a chef. I know that Mom and Dad would have loved to eat Big Bethel Buttermilk Biscuits as they talked to each other at the breakfast table. Mom probably would have had hers toasted to be crispy and would have eaten them with sausages, fruit and a cup of coffee. Dad probably would have had his warmed and would have eaten them with fig jam, peanut butter, grits, or gravy. Always with a hunk of sharp cheddar cheese and a gulp of ice-cold buttermilk. They probably would be talking about the card, the biscuits, and how their granddaughters are keeping the legend of Purlie Victorious – and freedom – in the family. I think they’d be proud of us all. And they would both laugh and laugh and laugh.

Thank you, Purlie Victorious.

Enjoy!!


Hasna Muhammad is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work focuses on family, social justice, education and the human condition. Her photography has been exhibited in various cities in the United States, and she recently published her first book, Breathe In the Sky: Poems Prayers & Photographs.


To purchase the script or learn more about Purlie Victorious, visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.