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Hurt Village

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hurt Village
Nicholas Christopher, Charlie Hudson III, Corey Hawkins, Joaquina Kalukango, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Saycon Sengbloh, and Lloyd Watts.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The word "Africa" is not uttered until deep in the second act of Hurt Village, but the continent hangs like a specter over Katori Hall's new play at the Signature Center. The African-American Memphis ghetto that gives the work its title is, if anything, a satellite colony, where the inhabitants have formed their own warring tribes and are united by customs and music the outside world simply cannot understand. The way this concept infuses everything about the drama is impressive, but the ultimate result is considerably less so: For all of Hall's pointed originality and colorful approaches to examining how the American dream withers and dies for these economically and spiritually destitute Southern blacks, for the most part she's too clever for her — or her show's — own good.

But until that wears you down, her tale is a gritty and uncompromising one. Populating this outpost is a blistering combination of young people, ranging from their teens to about their mid 20s or so, who are perpetuating the cycle of poverty and early parenthood into which they've been born. The youngest is 13 years old (Joaquina Kalukango), the daughter of a twentysomething mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and a soldier (Corey Hawkins) who's been serving in the military in Iraq. (The action takes place, the Playbill helpfully reminds us, during the “second Bush dynasty.”) He returns, and attempts to resume his life, but has neither the money nor the presence of mind necessary to make a better life for his girlfriend and child or aid his struggling grandmother (Tonya Pinkins) without reentering the drug trade he long ago abandoned.

The soldier's story unfolds over two weeks at "the end of summer," during which the residents are preparing for the slum to be razed so it can be rebuilt by white developers. During that time, he's taken in again by the street singing, dancing, and rapping (called "jooking"), and by a tacit rivalry with the reigning drug lord (Ron Cephas Jones) who doesn't want to relinquish to anyone the power he's acquired. Hall tracks these people, and others (the soldier's "high yellow" friend, played by Nicholas Christopher, and his live-in girlfriend, played by Saycon Sengbloh, factor prominently) through a series of lightning-paced scenes that give the production a jagged-collage, channel-surfing feel that keeps you as actively disoriented as the characters who are witnessing the end of their existence.

Director Patricia McGregor has brought out much of the depth and excitement inherent in the world the playwright has established, but her opportunities are limited. It doesn't take long — it's in full force by the end of the second scene or so — for Hurt Village to become so coy and so precious that Hall sabotages any chance she may have had to make her bruising, dynamic points about these victims of circumstance. And when that happens, McGregor's unsettling staging, David Gallo's epic junkyard-inspired set, Clint Ramos's urban-chic costumes, Sarah Sidman's piercing lighting, and Robert Kaplowitz's invasive sound cannot reignite your initial impression of these issues receiving treatment by a serious, substantial dramatic voice.

Hall has given all her characters names that don't suggest a shared way of life as much as they do a stab at wit that deflates before it delights. The soldier Buggy and his recovering-drug-addict woman Crank gave birth to their daughter Cookie; Buggy's grandmother, and the area's matriarch, is Big Mama; Cornbread is Buggy's friend and Toyia his pregnant squeeze; the drug overlord is Tony C; and the two good-naturedly competing freestylers are Ebony (Charlie Hudson III) and Skillet (Lloyd Watts). The last is so named, by the way, because he took a frying pan to the head as a boy, and as such speaks slowly well beyond the point of stuttering — and Hall ensures that he is given ample time to spit out his rhymes, none of which are jokes that prove worth waiting for.

Such names (a woman named Tilapia is referred to, but never seen) don't register as quirky so much as eye-rolling, and make it difficult to get lost in the tangles of their interactions. (When George C. Wolfe went this route in The Colored Museum, he was at least intentionally prodding.) Then there are the musical numbers themselves, which plod endlessly (and not just because of Skillet), and are rendered practically incomprehensible by the "accompaniment" made from banging rhythmically on props and the actors', shall we say, questionable diction. The point behind these seems to involve establishing the unique artistic language that will be lost when the community is, but the final product as realized onstage is so strained and unlikeable that the eventual rumble of the bulldozers proves far more melodic.

With The Mountaintop, which played on Broadway earlier this season, Hall demonstrated a stronger knack for blending naturalistic and fantastical elements, and even integrating a climactic rapped speech. Here, she's trying to construct from scratch an entire language and culture, so she presents her characters' reality as a heightened one. But without a firm grounding, it fails to live up to its promise, and falls at best falsely on the ear. It doesn't help that Jones and (to a lesser extent) Pinkins are the only actors who create full-bodied characters (interestingly, they speak the least in the vernacular), showing with bracing energy the way members of the older generation solved their own problems: by finding the solutions, however illegal or immoral, within themselves, and then passing on those tools. In Big Mama and Tony C is the heart of this place found.

Hurt Village the play, alas, has almost no other heart to speak of. That makes the last several scenes, which focus on the characters' personal implosions and internecine betrayals as demolition day edges nearer, ineffective to the point of being unbelievable — it's tough to get too absorbed in the troubles of characters that the playwright, the director, and the actors alike are perfectly happy leaving as two-dimensional cartoons. If Hall intended the play as an indictment of America, an excoriation against a land apparently willing to let its own citizens consume themselves on the streets, her cheekiness has so blunted the blade that it can't even bruise, let alone draw blood.


Hurt Village
Through March 18
Signature Theatre Company's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.signaturetheatre.org