Hoodoo Love at Hattiloo 


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," 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 fight, 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 good-intentioned Jersey boys.

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

Toulou, sweetly embodied by Keia Johnson, falls hard for Ace, a masterful bluesman with a girl in every town. Desperate to make him her one and only, she turns to Candy Lady, a conjure woman, whose root work is "powerful shit." The charms work, but there's a price.

To spice up this voodoo stew, Toulou's violent, hard-drinking brother follows her to town with the intention of founding his own congregation. Jib, a character reminiscent of Jacob Engstrand from Ibsen's Ghosts, brings everything Toulou was running away from with him.

Hall has a gift for writing colorful, idiom-laden dialogue that tumbles from her characters' mouths like Shakespeare's prose. Hurt Village sounds like Shakespeare. It also sounds like North Memphis at the turn of the last century. She also has a gift for style-hopping, and Hoodoo Love's mix of earthy music and magical realism is like an Alice Walker story arriving by train in one of Sam Shepard's early rock-and-blues fantasias. It studies the violence and deprivation underpinning the thing we call the blues, riffing on myths, and the memories of people who claim to have seen guitar legend Robert Johnson on the day he died, crawling on the floor on his hands and knees and barking like a dog.

There are many satisfying things about the Hattiloo's run through Hoodoo. Johnson's vulnerable, unforced performance tops the list, although every actor brings something good to the table. Arthur Ford's Ace is a smooth operator, whether he's blowing harp or blowing smoke. His scenes in Toulou's arms, and under her spell, make steam. As brother Jib, Rickey Thomas is an awkward mess of a manchild and a loose cannon. Candy Lady is brought vividly to life by Hurt Village veteran Angela Wynn. But on opening weekend, not all of the actors seemed comfortable with the lines and blocking, and nothing upsets the flow of a performance like actors having to think about what they are doing and saying. Here's hoping that gets better once the cast has a few shows under its belt.

It's 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 Memphis setting and magical elements create opportunities to present music in a theatrical way, without turning the show into an actual musical.

Director Brooke Sarden may not have found perfect solutions for Hoodoo Love's musical challenges, but she seems especially attuned to the meaning and natural musicality of Hall's language.

Although it's set in the 1930s, Hoodoo Love's modern Memphisness shines through in a way that should make it especially satisfying for regional audiences.

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