Saturday, January 24, 2015

Love American Style: Katori Hall's "Hoodoo Love" is a Blues Fairy Tale

Posted By on Sat, Jan 24, 2015 at 2:20 PM

She keeps a ra't's foot in her hand at night when she goes to sleep, 
She keeps a ra't's foot in her hand at night when she goes to sleep, 
to keep [me with] her, so I won't make no midnight creep.
— "Bad Luck Woman Blues," by Papa Charlie Jackson 

I’d like to see a Texas cage match where Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love takes on Memphis: The Musical. Not because I think it would be much of a match, but because it would be deeply satisfying to see Hall’s scruffy fairy tale school that wannabe rock-and-roll origin story by a couple of Jersey boys, and take it down for the count.

Hall’s a Memphis writer who writes Memphis, and Hoodoo Love, currently onstage at The Hattiloo Theatre, is an intense love story from the Great Migration, about a small woman with a big voice, who escapes her hellish life as a preacher’s daughter in rural Mississippi, hoping to make it as a blues singer on Beale Street in Memphis, and to cut a record on down the road in Chicago. She spends most of her time washing clothes for white people and thinking up songs.

Toulou, sweetly embodied by Keia Johnson, falls for Ace, a masterful bluesman with a girl in every port. Desperate to make him her own she turns to her neighbor Candy Lady, the conjure woman, whose root work is known to be some “powerful shit.” The charm works, but magic, like everything else, has a price.

To spice up this voodoo stew Toulou’s violent, hard drinking brother follows her to Memphis with the intention of founding his own congregation. He brings with him everything she was running away from in the first place.

Hall has a real gift for colorful, idiom-laden dialogue that tumbles from her characters’ mouths like Shakespeare’s prose. She also has a gift for style-hopping, and Hoodoo Love's mix of earthy music and magical realism  calls to mind Alice Walker by way of Sam Shepard’s early rock-and-blues fantasias. It’s a meditation on the violence and deprivation behind the thing we call the blues, riffing on the memories of people who claim to have seen guitar legend Robert Johnson on the day he died, crawling on his hands and knees and barking like a dog.

There are a number of satisfying things about the Hattiloo’s run through Hoodoo. Johnson’s performance tops the list, although every actor brings something interesting to the table. Arthur Ford makes a compelling Ace, and his scenes in Toulou’s arms, and under her spell, can be intense. Rickey Thomas makes brother Jib an awkward mess of a manchild and a loose cannon. And conjure woman Candy Lady is brought vividly to life by Hurt Village veteran Angela Wynn. But on opening weekend not all of the actors seemed fully comfortable with their lines and blocking, and nothing upsets the flow of a performance like actors having to think about what they are doing and saying.

That’s also the sort of thing that tends to improve as the actors settle in, so here's hoping.

It’s also frustrating, in Memphis especially, to watch actors pretending to play blues, out of sync with music from the wings. Even if you commit to actors who can’t play, Hoodoo Love’s subtle, but sturdy magical elements create a lot of opportunity to present music in a theatrical way, without turning the show into an actual musical.

Guitars and harmonicas aside, Director Brooke Sarden seems especially attuned to the meaning and musicality of Hall’s language. And even though it’s set in the 1930’s, Hoodoo Love’s Memphisness shines through in a way that should make it especially satisfying for regional audiences, even if the show never quite seems to hit on all cylinders. 

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