(l to r) Martasia Jones and Shariba Rivers in ‘Hoodoo Love.’ (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
Raven Theatre sings the blues with the latest offering, Hoodoo Love, by playwright Katori Hall. The work debuted off-Broadway in 2007, launching the Olivier Award-winning artist’s impressive young career, which also includes 2009 play The Mountaintop, set just before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. For Hall, there’s definitely something about Memphis.
Equal parts musical, mystical and pedantic, Hoodoo Love, as directed by Wardell Julius Clark, is a Depression-era, Tennessee prism through which an audience member can grow mesmerized by any refraction. The play ends as it begins, with Toulou (Martasia Jones) staring out toward the railroad tracks, guitar strapped to her back, ready to “catch that train” in search of her soul-singing destiny. In between these identical scenes, there is labor, love, loss, friendship, hypocrisy and hope, all sprinkled with a little of the Hoodoo magic Toulou borrows from her neighbor, a widowed former slave and shawoman known as Candylady (Shariba Rivers).
The play’s second, lengthy, and impossibly sexy scene is a bedroom tussle between Toulou and her lover, a complex rolling stone of a music man named Ace of Spades (Matthew James Elam). To the sweaty credit of intimacy and violence designer Rachel Flesher, audiences may find themselves jonesing for a cigarette after the couple’s lovemaking is through. Set against the backdrop of a Deep South thunderstorm, these few minutes are excitingly erotic, without bawdiness, and establish an authentic foundation for understanding Toulou’s addiction.
While Toulou prides herself on resourceful independence, Ace’s artistic gifts behind the microphone (and between the sheets) spring the young woman into the sultry Memphis stratosphere. With the passionate impatience of the smitten, Toulou engages the “good” magical services of Candylady to make her Ace of Spades think about staying a while. The women’s best intentions inadvertently touch off a sequence of disastrous events beyond antidote, reinforcing the play’s central ideological argument. Circumstances may be manipulated, but love and human nature are inherently immutable, answerable only to their own animal instincts.
Hoodoo Love is the curious musical where the melodies and lyrics supplement but do not supplant, the spoken word. Music direction from Ricky Harris engages rhythm as an almost biological spasm. The characters commune with the universe – and with each other – through spells, poems, riddles, snatches of song and most infrequently, direct confession.
The production’s wholesale experience is African spiritual meets Southern Gothic supernatural, with a heavy dose of matriarchal feminism. Make no mistake. Toulou and Candylady are the main characters, the sources of strength from which the narrative draws. Ace of Spades may be talented and sexy, but he’s also weak and transitory. The other male character, Toulou’s older brother Jib (Christopher Wayland Jones), is a pious, covetous predator who embodies every depraved offshoot of Western Judeo-Christian patriarchal power. In the world of Hoodoo Love, men create very little but every day, routine chaos.
Raven Theatre’s production is buttressed by a strong cast of four that exhibits the necessary trust and chemistry to undertake a wide range of emotional risks. Though Jones and Rivers command the stage entirely whenever present or speaking, Elam more than holds his own as the charismatic but haunted Ace of Spades.
Running two hours and 20 minutes, Hoodoo Love isn’t an easy watch, but an unforgettable, perversely inspiring dramatic experience. The final scene before the intermission is particularly horrifying but a necessary setup for the inevitable tragedies that follow. In this play, black American women suffer, as they always have, under oppressive male economic and social constructs. But they survive, they create and sing, and they bring forth new life and hope where nothingness and despair exist. Toulou and Candylady never give up — on themselves or each other.
6157 North Clark, Chicago
Through December 15
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob, their cats, Wendy and Lisa and their dog, RuPaul. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.