Wednesday, March 07, 2012

THEATER: Hurt Village

I don't doubt the accuracy of the picture Katori Hall paints of the former Memphis project she's titled her play Hurt Village after. Though many of her characters come across as stereotypes, I don't believe them any less: there's a reason stereotypes exist, whether that's fair or not, and the ensemble embodies them well. But there's a reason theater is a different medium than photography or painting: it's a three-dimensional, living art form, and must do more than simply show a moment in time. It must breathe life into its characters long enough for us to care aboutthem, not just their social circumstances, otherwise it's just a rawer sort of propaganda. It's a little telling that I felt more uncomfortable at the talk-back following Hurt Village than I did during the production itself -- uncomfortable with how shocked the audience was that parts of America look and sound like this. (In that sense, however, Hurt Village is a success.)

But while Hurt Village may have achieved its goal to shock people -- a shallow goal, if you ask me (look at the difference between the gruel of Thomas Bradshaw and the manna of Young Jean Lee) -- it misses out on opportunities to nurture empathy and provoke outrage. The script jumps around far too much, settling on all of the things that it is not rather than any one thing that it is: it is nota coming-of-age story for Cookie (Joaquina Kalukango), a thirteen-year-old girl who has said fuck the village and decided to raise herself; it is not a tale of the neglected soldier Buggy (Corey Hawkins), whose dishonorable discharge after ten years of service has all but forced him to once again start dealing drugs with his buddy Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher); it is not about the inadequacies of the welfare state, in which Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins) discovers that despite the government's choice to evict her from a one-bedroom project where she works night shifts and lives with her unemployed daughter-in-law Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and granddaughter Cookie, she makes roughly $400 too much to qualify for Section 8 housing, and therefore may end up on the street. There's no real resolution or development to any of these characters or situations, just an emphasis (well-enhanced by set designer David Gallo and the raw direction of Patricia McGregor) on how awful all of this is.

Yes, one of the major themes in Hurt Village is that of neglect, but did Ms. Hall truly think the best way to demonstrate this was by neglecting her own characters? To dilute her potent moments by spreading them so thin in an overreaching and overlong work? Hints of indecision are visible in the way Hall's script quits the aggressive freestyle rap rhythms of its opening and gets lost in poetic, polemic monologues; in turn, these lead to hints of falseness as the drama twists on itself: Skillet (Lloyd Watts) is all but forced to show Cookie a moment of kindness because he's the only character who can do so, and he's about to be killed; the supposed kingpin of the Hurt, Tony C (Ron Cephas Jones), makes mistake after mistake in threatening Buggy, simply because Hall wants Buggy to get close enough to choke the man. Even good moments are corrupted by their brevity: we all feel sorry for big-mouthed Ebony (Charlie Hudson, III), who vomits on stage after his involvement in a murder, but only for a moment, since we'll never see him again. The same goes for  Toyia (Saycon Sengbloh): she may have a lot on her plate, but because we so rarely see her, most of her interactions with her "ace boon coon" Crank seen to come out of nowhere. Toward the end of the play, even the director seems to be throwing things together, tossing the carefully established realism of the first two hours away in order to flush out an unnecessary dream monologue and hasty epilogue. (This is part of why I much preferred the similarly themed Milk Like Sugar.)

Hurt Village is so concerned with being demonstrative and provocative that it accomplishes less than it should -- a bit like Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps Signature finds it necessary to crank up the volume every now and then just to get through to their subscriber base (though I'd argue that Athol Fugard's Blood Knot works to far greater effect). Still, as I once wrote about Ms. Hall's Hoodoo Love, at least a searing voice is there, even if a stirring message is not.

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