Thursday, November 01, 2007

Hoodoo Love

Opportunities for jazz and blues in New York theater productions come along irregularly, so we should hope for the best each time such a musically themed play hits the boards. The latest, Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love, opened Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre last night (where it started life as part of its Mentor Program), and by-and-large it capitalizes on its opportunities quite well.

Set in the Mississippi Delta region, Hoodoo is steeped in the blues tradition, where love and murder are close cousins. Though it might be seasoned with a hint of the supernatural, at its core, Hoodoo is a love story and a naturalistic family drama of the most dysfunctional sort. Throughout, the power of music, namely the blues, offers the promise of escape, though at times this appears to be a false hope.

The love in Hoodoo Love comes between Toulou, a young washerwoman eking out a hardscrabble living, and the dashing blues musician and gambler, Ace of Spades, more committed to the open road than any of his numerous romantic interests, when the play opens. Played by Angela Lewis and Kevin Mambo respectively, their relationship is the cornerstone of the play. Unfortunately, there is bad love as well, represented by Toulou’s preacher brother Gib, played by Keith Davis. His sudden reappearance in her life complicates the courtship of Toulou and Ace of Spades, sowing the seeds of suspicion in the bluesman as to what transpired between the siblings in the past. Watching over her is a sympathetic neighbor, Candy Lady played by Marjorie Johnson.

The relatively small cast lends an intimate feeling to the proceedings, as tragedy begins to beget tragedy. Of the four characters, three are quite nuanced in their development. Lewis has the challenge of taking Toulou from a state of arrested development rooted in her family abuse to a state of willful survival (empowerment would probably be too strong a word) as an aspiring blues singer. Kevin Mambo brings a sense of both humanity and cunning to the role of Ace of Spades. For her part, Candy Lady is a surprisingly flawed character, seeing herself as almost as much a victim of her own timidity as Toulou as the first act closes. Only the character of Jib lacks any real surprises. By now the perverse, hypocritical clergyman is such a cliché, Jib could have been imported from dozens of other works.

Despite the weakness of Jib, Hoodoo is a strong play. While Ace of Spades’ conversion from rolling stone to hen-picked husband in Act II is a bit abrupt, the play really picks up steam again when he starts playing a game of cat-and-mouse with Jib, in an attempt to confirm all his suspicions. Hall makes a smart decision to show Ace of Spades as intuitive enough to suspect the truth from the beginning (as does the audience, after all the brother is a preacher, right?).

Hoodoo is very well staged by director Lucie Tiberghien. At times Hoodoo is brutally frank in its on-stage depictions, but never in a way that raise questions of taste. The blues songs of Toulou and Ace of Spades (also written by Hall, with music by Daniel Barker and the theatrical compositional group Broken Chord Collective) are an important element of the play, but incorporated in a way that does not tax anyone’s chops. Hall’s language is realistic and appropriate to the setting, but not distracting in a desire for colorful effect. Robin Vest’s evocative but economical set design is flexible enough to enhance the various moods of the play.

One of the refreshing things about Hoodoo is that it really takes the blues seriously, for which Hall deserves credit. Toulou should not be seen as a stand-in for Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, but clearly their blues flowed from similar sources. In some of the early press notices there was speculation about a Broadway run. It would be great see a legit blues drama on Broadway, but one would not want to see the revolving celebrity casting door spinning American Idol contestants in and out of these roles. The four cast members are universally strong, with Mambo being a standout. Like Sideman, the last jazz drama to have a good Broadway run after making the transfer, it is really about characters, so its best to see it in any intimate setting, like Cherry Lane. This is something unusual: a worthy new American play that also happens to be blues literate. It officially opened November 1st, and plays though December 9th.