Hoodoo Love, the latest offering from Sound Theater Company, is up to its mojo bags and wailing banjos in content warnings—there’s even a notice posted at the door: “Adult content, sexual violence, serious Voodoo, BEWARE!” or something along those lines. Such mollycoddling generally makes my eyes roll so far back I can see my brain. Isn’t good theatre supposed to push boundaries, inspire discussions, stretch the frangible boundaries of the human experience or something? Of course, it is. So naturally, I scoffed at their misguided trigger warning. Scoff, scoff!
I regret said scoffing. Hoodoo Love by Katori Hall is a sometimes deep and difficult play that wanders into taboo territory, and it isn’t messing around. If your sensibilities do get overly riled by things like incest, rape, murder, loud sex, use of the “N” word, black magic, and/or born-again evangelists, I’d consider sitting this one out. Or at least learning some deep-breathing exercises.
Another serious consideration: Unless you were born in the bayou and/or benefit from a godless liberal arts education, you’d do well to read up on the ways and means of old-school Southern Conjure if you want to get the most out of this show. Otherwise—WOOSH!—many of the hoodoo, mojo, juju, bone-throwing references will go right over your head and out the window.
The story takes place deep down in Memphis, in the Depression era, where slavery is a too-fresh memory, life is bleak (especially for a Black woman alone), and music, magic and men are the only ways out. Here we meet a young Black woman called Toulou (Porscha Shaw). She’s “a little girl with big city dreams!” but what Toulou really has is a whole mess of troubles, most of the male variety. Her lover, Ace of Spades (Andre G. Brown), is a drinky blues man with a woman in every town, but he’s also her only chance to realize her dream of being a blues singer herself. Her brother, Jib (the always-engaging Corey Spruill) is also a drunk, a lech and aspiring preacher, and a whole other mess altogether.
Toulou is poor and unmarried, used and abused by the men in her life. They treat her like property, so she turns to the only two weapons available to her to try and gain control of her life: magic, and her voice. “Every Southern child raised in the church can sing,” she says, and she believes her angelic voice, plus her erstwhile boyfriend’s music connections, are her ticket to a better future. She “lays a trick” on Ace of Spades to steal his heart, in the hopes of marrying him and using his career to bolster her own, leading, of course, to a disaster of Shakespearean proportions. Tricks are tricky like that.
Toulou is advised in her travails by Candylady (an excellent performance from Eva Abram), a former slave, now the “two headed” hoodoo doctor who lives next door. “I might cain’t read”, she says, “but you ain’t dealin’ with no fool.” She prescribes Toulou the magic herbs, roots, powders and lore necessary to remedy her woes, romantic and otherwise. (There was no Planned Parenthood in Depression-era Memphis, after all. Enough said.) She is sympathetic, wise and full of good intentions, just like the road to hell. “You wanna be saved? Go to church,” Candylady says. “You want something done? You come to me.”
But Hoodoo Love isn’t all darkness and Southern Gothic gloom: this production is balanced with some lighthearted laughs, exquisite use of dialogue, Southern charm, fascinating folksy folklore, and pretty sweet blues tunes, too (also written by Hall). Do not, however, mistake this show for a musical—it’s a play with a little music in it. A tap-dancey, jazz-handsy musical this show sure ain’t.
The friendship that grows between Toulou and Candylady is endearing and heartwarming. And special note should be paid to STC scenic designer Margaret Toomey and lighting designer Matthew Webb: the set is enchanting and deftly captures the unlikely romantic charm of a shabby Southern shantytown at twilight, complete with everything but fireflies (note to Toomey and Webb: get some fireflies!).
In her program statement, director Malika Oyetimein says that Hoodoo Love is about “the tenacity of and perseverance of black women,” and this is true—Toulou certainly is tenacious, and brave. But it’s also about powerlessness and desperation. There’s never a real payoff for Toulou’s pains, no great Hollywood ending for her efforts. She is something of a perennial victim of her impossible circumstances, playing the lousy hand she’s dealt as well as she can, managing a life with a thoroughly hobbled sense of hope. This provided the story with a certain sense of realness, but it also made the darker moments seem gratuitous. Glib, “everybody wins” endings wear thin; this was much more a window into a woman’s life and struggle, with nothing so simple as an easy moral or clear emotional payoff at the end. It was an interesting, intense and long two hours that just left me kind of sad.
Hoodoo Love runs through July 30.