Review: Hoodoo Love by Katori Hall. Produced by Sound Theatre Company in collaboration with The Hansberry Project. Directed by Malika Oyetimein. Music Direction by Chic Street Man. Scenic Design by Margaret Toomey. Costume Design by Jordan Emery Fell. Lighting Design by Matthew Webb. Sound Design by Ben Symons. With Porscha Shaw, André G. Brown, Eva Abram, Corey Spruill. Now through July 30, 2017 at Center Theatre/Seattle Center.
Katori Hall is a major voice in world theater who first came to international attention with her “Martin Luther King In The Lorraine Motel The Night Before He Was Assassinated” play The Mountaintop which won her awards and productions around the world. She has since followed up with other acclaimed plays like Hurt Village and Our Lady of Kibeho. But she also earned praise for her first major produced work, in 2007 with the passionately brutal Depression era set drama HOODOO LOVE which also started Ms Hall on her series of plays set in various time frames in Memphis, Tennessee and all dealing with African-American lives and culture.
Hoodoo Love is a play with music (also written by Ms Hall) and centers on a young woman named Toulou who has fled her rural hometown and life with her problematic father and brother, to live in the big city of Memphis and pursue her dreams of becoming a blues singer. Like many black women of that era, she has to earn her living as a domestic but Toulou has an optimistic nature and knows she will eventually be a success. She doesn’t get much encouragement from her boyfriend, a charming but roguish blues musician named Ace of Spades who makes sure to drop in for conjugal visits every time he bops into Memphis to snag gigs on Beale Street, the main black neighborhood in Memphis as well as one of the primary blues music centers in the country. Ace of Spades is eager to keep his relationship with Toulou casual but her sweetly salty old next door neighbor, Candylady convinces her to use “hoodoo” charms to bewitch Ace of Spades into a more meaningful and committed relationship. The plan seems to work until Toulou’s conniving brother Jib shows up, eager to mooch off his sister and hopefully establish himself as a popular local preacher on Beale Street. Tensions between the siblings impact Toulou’s relationships with both Candylady and Ace of Spades with Toulou crying out at one point: “This ain’t no card game…this is my LIFE!”
Though it’s an early work, Hoodoo Love is exceptionally well written and very clearly established Katori Hall as a major new playwright and one unafraid to touch on dangerous themes and topics. She’s also not afraid to tackle supernatural themes in her work. While I wasn’t especially crazy about the use of the supernatural in her most successful work to date, The Mountaintop, I think it works far more organically and integrally in Hoodoo Love. The use of “hoodoo” or folk magic is obviously a major theme of this play and it all blends in perfectly with the material regardless if you “believe” in the powers of hoodoo or not. Ms Hall has created four vibrant, passionate, larger than life at times characters but they still manage to feel very much human and realistic and believable in their passion and pain. The setting, the characters, the themes, the plot and the dialogue all blend beautifully to tell this fascinating tale. As a work of dramatic literature, it’s a superb piece of play writing.
Fortunately for us, Sound Theatre Company’s currently running production at the Center House Theatre at Seattle Center (in collaboration with The Hansberry Project) is up to the challenge of producing this gorgeous material. Despite the fact she’s the hardest working director in Seattle right now and this is her third (or is it 4th?) major production of the year that I’m aware of, Malika Oyetimein has turned in yet another terrific job of directing this play. There were a few oddly paced transitions between some of the scenes that hadn’t quite been worked out yet on opening night but other than that, this Hoodoo Love is beautifully staged.
It’s also beautifully designed with a detailed set depicting Toulou and Candylady’s small cabins, designed by Margaret Toomey and lovely moody lighting by Matthew Webb. Jordan Emery Fell’s costumes are period appropriate and visually appealing. It’s a smart looking show.
It’s also a superbly acted one with all four actors doing exceptional work here. Corey Spruill is a local actor we’ve seen a lot of over the years and he’s always done a fine job with the roles he’s been given but apparently those roles didn’t give him enough to do because he really shines here as the menacing brother Jib. Here’s an example of an actor being paired with a role he can really sink his teeth into and just run with it; his delight at playing this role is very evident. He is superb as a character you’re not meant to like much but yet you can’t help but love this performance.
So is Eva Abram as the wisely conniving hoodoo “sorceress” next door, “Candylady”. It’s a rich, colorful role with so much to work with and Ms Abram is just having a field day, playing this wonderful role. She’s funny and fierce and fabulous but she also breaks your heart. Another great role paired with a great performance.
Our romantic leads are Porscha Shaw and André G. Brown as Toulou and Ace of Spaces respectively, and both are currently students in the University of Washington’s Drama School where director Malika Oyetimein just graduated and we hope all three of them continue to stay around Seattle for awhile because we want to see more work from all of them on area stages. Mr. Brown was seen earlier this year in ArtsWest’s Milk Like Sugar also directed by Ms Oyetimein and made a suitable impression in that production as a struggling young man with a lack of confidence and self-esteem. Here, he astonishes as an older character with quite a lot of confidence and self worth and he’s very much a commanding and powerful leading man.
But, it’s Toulou’s play and Porscha Shaw gives a beautifully realized and passionate performance in this role. Toulou is the broken heart and fractured soul of this play and Ms Shaw’s intimately crafted work here is a revelation of a major new actress in town. This play could be subtitled “Toulou Sings The Blues” and she does…with great passion and much wit and charm. Her struggles, not only as a woman, but as a woman of color in this time and place, are just as relevant today as they were in the 1930s. This performance resonates because it feels real and truthful.
And, it all adds up….a superb script with an excellent production and team of theatrical artists. Sound Theatre’s Hoodoo Love is one of the best productions of 2017 and one serious theater lovers should not miss. Exceptional dramatic literature and art fully realized.