Sound Theatre Company/Hansberry Project
(at Armory Theatre)
Through July 30, 2017
The atmospherics of Sound Theatre Company/Hansberry Project’s new production of Hoodoo Love are beautifully rendered with two shanty shacks and Depression era props by designer Margaret Toomey, lots of blues music interludes by designer Ben Symons (and music played by Chic Street Man), and moody, depressed lighting by Matthew Webb.
It is a tough and tough-minded play by Katori Hall (The Mountaintop) that demonstrates the kinds of daunting challenges and outrages that women, black women in particular, had to overcome and find a way to thrive through. Director Malika Oyetimein clearly feels this play clear through (partly from having directed it already before she went through grad school at UW) and uses every moment to make the theme shine.
The play could be harrowing to those for whom rape is a triggering situation. While those moments are sensitively done, there is no real way to make rape palatable. But Hall deliberately wants the audience to be confronted with terrible and uncomfortable and “real” life.
Toulou (Porscha Shaw) loves the blues, loves writing songs and loves her sometimes-lover Ace of Spades (André G. Brown). She wants him to marry her, and take her to Chicago to become a blues singer, but he seems happy with popping in whenever he feels like it. In order to change her luck, she gets her nextdoor neighbor, Candylady (Eva Abram) to teach her a “hoodoo” – a kind of West African spell, which Candylady shows her. It’s a 9-day process that’s intricate and full of mystery.
Unfortunately, Toulou’s brother shows up. Jib (Corey Spruill) is a wanna-be preacher who is not very tightly tied to religion. And you just know he represents bad news as soon as you see him. Jib takes an adversarial tone to Ace, immediately. Toulou doesn’t seem at all happy to see him and later it becomes clear that some of the terrible trials that Toulou has survived are deep within family relationships.
Candylady is an interesting character. She has survived since the end of slavery and clearly is a survivor of the top order. But she can still tease and exhibit joy. A wrenching moment in the play is her description of how she lost a child. Abram provides the full range of Candylady’s inner character in great supporting work. Even though she’s right next door and can hear almost everything, when she appears and does not appear are key to events in Toulou’s life.
Shaw, as Toulou, gets your attention and respect from the moment she appears at the beginning of the piece. She wears her heart on her sleeve, but always digs deeper for more. She is luminous in the role. Toulou could give up, just as Candylady could have, but both of them continue to overcome.
The men in the piece are less likely to arouse respect or kind thoughts. But both actors have moments that shine. Brown can wail a blues song and his emotional choices are very understandable. He gives a strong and confident performance.
Spruill begins by allowing us to laugh and enjoy his character before things have to turn dark. He’s good at being bad. He commits fully to what the play needs him to be.
Basically, the play is a blues song turned into a beautiful performance. It’s dark and sad in parts, but also something you choose to immerse yourself in and enjoy.