Katori Hall’s ambitious new play, “Hurt Village,” is what you want to see at the Signature Theater’s new home — a dramatically unruly but terrifically exciting work by a playwright with something to say. Set in a decrepit housing project in Memphis, this sprawling ensemble piece has two faces. Looking backward, it’s a lament for a proud old neighborhood awaiting the bulldozer. Looking forward, it’s the coming-of-age story of a 13-year-old girl finding her way out. And because it’s staged in the round (and up the side walls to a wraparound catwalk), the show also exerts a powerful presence in the here-and-now.
The only flaw in Patricia McGregor’s otherwise dynamic helming is getting the show on and off the stage.
David Gallo’s artfully cluttered two-tiered set of a decaying housing project in a chaotic war-zone neighborhood immediately pulls the audience into the action, and a spellbinding rap soliloquy by 13-year-old Cookie (the amazing Joaquina Kalukango) draws us deeper into the lives of the people who are still hanging on in this godforsaken place, trusting the city to relocate them when their homes are torn down.
“I be the street storyteller,” declares this wise child, “and this my ode to project people strugglin’.”
Instead of bringing Hall’s struggling people to realistic life, McGregor throws them at us in full flight — and at top volume. (An upstairs neighbor seems especially shrill.) But once they stop screaming and sort themselves out, it’s easy to see why they made it into Cookie’s street song.
Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins, rocking this role) is Cookie’s great-grandmother and the de facto neighborhood matriarch, a hard-working, tough-talking woman who plays by rules that everyone else in the projects seems to have forgotten, and who is bound to suffer for keeping the faith.
Cookie’s father Buggy (Corey Hawkins, attractively tormented) is just home from the Army and looking haunted. Marsha Stephanie Blake is a heartbreaker as Cookie’s mother, Crank, off the hard drugs, but barely.
These three characters represent whatever stability there is in Cookie’s life. But she’s a smart kid, and she knows who to trust and who to stay away from in the neighborhood. Local losers Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher), Ebony (Charlie Hudson III), and Skillet (Lloyd Watts) seem harmless enough. But Tony C is the neighborhood drug dealer, and Ron Cephas Jones (who looks fine in the white suit designed by Clint Ramos) brings a subtle note of menace to the casual street talk.
Talk is something that Hall (who made her Broadway debut this season with “The Mountaintop”) does extremely well. The language is strong, the Memphis dialect is rough, and the musical rhythms have a hypnotic quality that has made its way into Cookie’s street song. (For this, a nod goes to Luqman Brown’s wraparound music.)
Things do happen in “Hurt Village.” Some of these events, like Crank’s return to crack, are sad. Others are infuriating, like the bureaucratic runaround Big Mama gets (in a scene beautifully played by Pinkins) when she goes to the welfare office to plead for a housing grant.
The problem with Hall’s dramaturgy (and, to some extent, McGregor’s helming) is that the big events hover on the fringes of the play or happen entirely offstage, discussed but not really dramatized. If it weren’t for Cookie’s street song we might never know the fate of all the characters we’ve come to care about.