Katori Hall’s keen ear for a well-turned phrase is on full display in “Hoodoo Love,” but all the sweet talk in the world can’t fix the kinds of abuse her characters heap on each other. Hall, a Memphis native, has set her play in the ’30s among that city’s poor black population, so there’s plenty of adversity to be mined. Although the writer has a wonderful propensity for briefly letting her characters flower into unsuspecting poets, the graphic nastiness she visits on them is awful to watch. So much so, actually, that the play becomes hard to recommend.
In “Hoodoo,” shock seems at first to be the coin of the realm — we’ve got consensual sex, mimed urination, rape and a really awful death scene to keep us entertained. Taken alone, almost any one of these would qualify as a climax; all together, they keep the play from really building to anything.
These various hardships are piled chiefly on Toulou (Angela Lewis), a young woman in love with bluesman Ace (Kevin Mambo) but in thrall to her lecherous born-again brother Jib (Keith Davis).
Jib cuts a disturbing figure: A cheerful preacher in a “Night of the Hunter” hat, Davis goes heavy on the bumbling charm and upends our ideas about what a sexual predator looks like — it’s a complicated performance, and a good one.
Toulou, too, has her complexities. From the very beginning Hall makes it clear she wants to write about the terrible things people do to be loved. Toulou is willing to try anything to bind Ace to her — even witchcraft. Her adviser in things witchy and worldly is Candy Lady (Marjorie Johnson), an elderly former slave who remembers all the necessary voodoo to make a charm that will do the deed.
Candy Lady feels like she escaped from a Toni Morrison novel to appear in this play. Steeped in the wisdom of her African origins, she can neither do nor say any wrong, though she sometimes doesn’t do or say enough. She’s the least interesting of the characters here, though she provides the occasional narrative expedient with her occult prescience.
Ultimately, the supernatural trappings and vividly depicted cruelty aren’t necessary, because Hall does much more interesting and original things with the bones of the play. Her characterizations and dialogue are sharp enough to sustain the play without disasters hurled at us like buckets of cold water. We were awake all along; now we’re just uncomfortable.
Hall is likely to write a great play someday, and its trappings are here in “Hoodoo Love.” But this drama seems uncertain, right down to a feel-good musical finale to a play that walks and talks like a tragedy. For now, it’s more interesting to watch the writer than the work.