With Collective Theatre’s inaugural production of Katori Hall’s “HooDoo Love,” the new company has brought the extraordinary playwright, at last, to Chicago. Well, it’s about time! An Olivier Award winner, Hall is an emerging artist whose voice is unmatched in its savory language and resonating pulse. Her deep-rooted respect for the venerability of her hometown, Memphis, Tennessee, and of her African-American heritage is proudly and maternally apparent in her work, and has landed Hall a high-profile residency at the Signature Theatre Off-Broadway.
She won the West End Olivier in 2010 for her best-known play, “The Mountaintop,” whose Broadway production, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, got an unexpectedly cool reception. That play, an embellished imagining of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night spent on earth, demonstrates Hall’s particular acuity for crafting tight-knit environments. Dr. King’s unremarkable Memphis hotel room in “The Mountaintop” envelops the audience as it takes a kaleidoscope of twists and turns. The richness of Hall’s fallible King and a sweetly down-to-earth angel establish place far better than any elaborate scenery ever could. And Hall’s formidable skill for building community through character bleeds into much of her other work like the hot-blooded “HooDoo Love.”
This new production’s brightest virtue and biggest impediment resides in a padded feature: soul-satisfying blues music. While Hall herself has written sweet and sorrowful songs for her characters—Toulou with big city dreams of becoming a blues singer—Director Nelsan Ellis has added a live, always-onstage blues band that provides interludes between each and every scene. Lead by lead singer Opal Demetria Staples as the longing Lillie Mae, the songs, tortured and addictive, amplify your heartache and awaken your emptiness—like only the best of the blues. The seven-member band fashions the theater as a Southern juke joint, brimming with tobacco smoke, liquor and endless music. The act would make a fine concert of its own, and I would be the first in line to buy a ticket. But the fabulous singing, trumpeting and percussion exists too far outside the periphery of the four-person play, rather than as an active contributor.
The young and wondering Toulou, having left behind a strenuous cotton-picking job and a painful family life, begins the play in a bluesy haze—a one-night stand with the burly, gamblin’ music man, Ace, ending in the revelation that he’s a player with a girl in every town. But the comedy and pathos of her interactions with neighborhood HooDoo magic practitioner Candy Lady (Toni Lynice Fountain), revel in joy and sassy silliness that interspersed blues concerts do not always suit. When Toulou comes out of her shell to sing for Ace—shedding the crippling shame instilled by her father and brother—her growth is empowering and well deserved. The music of Toulou’s heart and soul is her own, and sharing it so carelessly with the band robs her of burgeoning, desperate individuality. Director Nelsan Ellis, of HBO’s “True Blood,” transitions out of music sequences and back into the play’s written scenes abruptly—the bonus music and the cemented words at a disconnect furthered by overlong darkened pauses.
But the blues is easy on the ears, nonetheless, as are the performers. Lynn Wactor’s Toulou, fearfully conjuring devilish HooDoo magic to guarantee Ace’s love and devotion, awakens with the ferocity of so many memorable American theater heroines. I saw flashes of William Inge’s Madge and Tennessee Williams’ Alma in Wactor’s dynamically lived, man-derived traumas and love-hate relationship with her newfound independence. Staring out, curious and conflicted, at the passing train, Toulou reveals Wactor and Hall’s mutual connection to nostalgia—a blatantly honest nostalgia that depicts this community’s past as it was—blissful and unbearable.
As her wistful ball and chain, Ace, LaRoyce Hawkins authentically blends alpha-masculinity with a shy sensitive side, keeping the audience guessing as to the color of his true intent. Toulou’s brother, Jib, an hypocritical preacher whose muddy devotion to God enables HooDoo the perfect grass-is-greener alternative to Christianity, is spoken-sung by Mark Smith. Smith’s spontaneous musical outbursts give added meaning to Toulou’s quick-witted observation that he “might as well be talking gibberish.”
Hall’s scenes are emotionally giant, but Ellis has pushed the action very far upstage on Henry Behel’s two-house set to make room for the band. In a theater that condensed, seven feet can make all the difference to an audience’s connection or dismissal. “HooDoo Love” grasps the onlookers in its first act, but the distance becomes too pronounced in the second—the monstrous rage and jealousy removed of punch. Notably, a terrifying and serene scene that follows the grotesque Act One bedroom confrontation of Toulou and Jib is sharply reduced in potential power and sting as the would-be tension transforms into a lull. But Hall’s marvelous play manages to shine through despite these hurdles, guided by a cast fantastically willing to commit to her eccentricities and harsh spoken-word photography. (Johnny Oleksinski)
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport, (773)935-6875. Through October 21.