Be careful what you wish for. That is the final warning in Rain Pryor’s director’s comments for the program for the most recent production to open for Spotlighters’ 60th season. I could not have wished for a better Friday evening then spending it amongst the magic of Katori Hall’s bluesy and intimate account of a young black woman forced to reckon with the time and circumstances life has forced upon her.
There was no shortage of song, love, grief, violence, magic, and talent to be had.
Toulou (Sharon Brown Carter) lives in a measly, one-bedroom shack near Beale Street in Memphis Tennessee. Her name is the first glimpse at her character, too little for this, too little for that, too little. Brown Carter excellently portrayed Toulou’s girlish innocence as she falls head over for the traveling blues singer Ace of Spades (Mark Wallace). Ace is charming, philandering, and can’t resist the lure of the spades table. Wallace had all the grandiosity and musicality needed to bring this character to life. The pair had beautiful chemistry and their moments together were tender, angry, passionate, and heartbroken. There was no shortage of song, love, grief, violence, magic, and talent to be had.
The fascinating hoodoo woman Candy Lady (Andromeda Bacchus) guides Toulou on a journey of self-discovery and magic. Bacchus was equal parts charming, wise, and surprisingly fallible. Her stories are a time capsule of the last generation of enslaved black people, still living with that trauma and unsure of how to move into the future. She portrayed Candy Lady’s pain just as clearly as her sassy wit. She coaxes Toulou to live her dream of being a blues singer, and offers her a mojo bag and rooting spell so she can always keep a piece of Ace’s heart.
Things seem to be going well for Toulou until her older brother, Jib (Nikolas Hubbard), mysteriously shows up. We learn that Toulou has done her best to hide her whereabouts from her family, and it becomes increasingly clear as the slimy, wanna-be southern preacher begins to leach off her home and good will. Hubbard had fun with the bombastic preaching, and was sinister in his drunken rages. What sets the tone for the second half is his brutal sexual assault of Toulou. To take her revenge she poisons his flask of whiskey. In a classic twist of fate, however, Ace wins the flask off Jib and is poisoned instead.
Director Rain Pryor utilized film techniques inspired by camera angles and set the piece in the round for the first time in its production history. This worked beautifully so that the characters rotate and move in ways that create intimacy, giving the audience a “fly on the wall” perspective. Deletta Gillespie’s music directing and sound design superbly complimented and reinforced the time and place of the setting. Alan S. Zelma’s scenic design clearly establish the little village of shacks and Toulou’s carefully loved and cared for home while still allowing the playing space to be fully utilized. Melissa Martinez’s lighting design moved the story through early morning and late nights, and supported the surreal moments of hoodoo magic. Rachel Smith’s costume design was gorgeous, period-accurate, and full of careful detail. It was a standout for me of the evening.
What is remarkable about Katori Hall’s writing, beyond the vivid and poetic writing, was that Toulou ultimately does live her dream. The space at Spotlighters created an intimate experience for the audience and characters to live together for just a moment in that hot and emotionally wealthy story. Despite falling pregnant, being brutalized, or even just living as a poor black woman in the Jim Crow South, Toulou persists and thrives. It honors Hall’s dedication of the play “most importantly, to female survivors all over the world” with a story of true feminism.
Running time: Approximately two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Mature themes and depiction of sexual assault.
“Hoodoo Love” runs through October 9, 2022 at Spotlighters Theatre. For more information and tickets, go online. Spotlighters requires all audience members to wear a mask at all times while in the lobby or theatre.