You don't have to be a young playwright to get down and dirty in your text. But it helps. Just sit down and talk with Candy Lady, the saucy and grandmotherly conjuror of Katori Hall's brash new play, Hoodoo Love. She'll tell you that the best way to keep that shiftless blues singer man of yours around for the nine days it'll take to put a love hex on him is to menstruate in his coffee. She's not juggin' you either: go to church all you want, but she's the one who gets shit done.
It's a shame that you--that is, that Toulou, the bright young heroine, doesn't know enough to be careful of what she wishes for. She pins down a piece of Ace of Spade's heart, and in return finds something to really make her turn to the blues. Shackled to her small shack, she's as far from Memphis as anyone, and her needy (and somewhat incestuous) contradiction of an older brother, Jib, doesn't want her running off any time soon. The moral, told in a combination of Candy Lady's passed down wisdom and Toulou's dramatically earned experience, is that freedom must come freely, and yet is never actually free. Ace of Spades and Jib, who wander around squandering their talents for singing and preaching (mirrors of one another), are free, but they're bound as much by their gambling and drinking as they are by the necessities of the road. And Candy Lady, despite possessing magical powers and knowing volumes of hoodoo lore, can't actually save Toulou from the troubles that plague her: as she points out, there's no such thing as a backward potion.
The issue with Hoodoo Love, however, is that all of these thoughts and ideas are evoked without ever really being provoking. Maybe it's the rhythmic lull of the sentences, or the way in which everyone around Toulou is just a little too exaggerated. More likely, it's the build of the play, which has two separate climaxes, both of which are clumsily telegraphed and emotionally void. At times, Angela Lewis, who plays Toulou, only seems as if she's half there, and though her plight isn't hard to empathize with, it's veiled in darkness both by the director and by the playwright, moments that are set just out of reach. Where the play works far better are the dangerously tense moments directly before the storms, much of which is contributed by Keith Davis, who plays Jib as such a solid block of sternness that when he teeters, it is with a frightening force and an unsettling vulnerability. You can tell these moments are effective not just by the palpitation of your heart, but by the choice of director Lucie Tiberghien to step back and not clutter the truth with unnecessary illusions (as when Candy Lady casts a shadow over the golden light illuminating the tragic end of Act I).
Not to say that Hoodoo Love is any less watchable for these moments: while it may not always engage our guts, it still manages to portray a dirty South, circa 1930, a nasty world where African-American men are more likely to pick cotton than pluck guitar strings. The set is vague (the shack looks as if it is caught mid-hurricane, all odd angles and suspensions) but the setting is specific and the dialogue is era-appropriate. Like the stray musical numbers, or Toulou's infectious bellyful of hope, Hoodoo Love is catchy. It just needs to catch on something deeper.