Seema Sueko, the Executive Artistic Director of San Diego's Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company, knows rising stars when she sees them (she produced Lydia R. Diamond's play Stick Fly before it landed a Broadway slot), and with Ms. Hall she jumped on presenting Hoodoo Love, the other play this author has shown in New York. It's worth seeing this fine production if only so you can say you were familiar with Katori Hall early on in her career.
Hoodoo Love is interesting primarily for its detailed portrayal of a place and time. Set in a small colony of shacks off of Beale Street in Memphis, Ms. Hall's hometown, the story deals with women and men trying to escape poverty and embrace the mores of a rapidly changing world while not completely letting go of old superstitions and cultural practices.
Voodoo was probably the most powerful of these practices, and it was one that gave some measure of perceived control in relationships to women. Otherwise, women were still considered to be little more than property to be used as men wanted to use them. But men were also in the thrall of voodoo, and their belief made the spells even more powerful.
Once you've got these basics, the story unfolds in a less-than-remarkable fashion. Young Toulou (Jasmine Hughes) lives in a shack next to an older woman named Candy Lady (Monique Gaffney). Both do what they can to bring in enough money to survive, while Toulou dreams of fame as a blues singer in the nearby bars. The men in Toulou's life, Ace of Spades (Stu James), a singer who regularly passes through, and Jib (Kirkaldy Myers), Toulou's brother who arrives looking to become a preacher, are duplicitous and only out for themselves. To escape Jib, who has demanded and received Toulou's hospitality, Toulou consults Candy Lady for a spell that will make Ace of Spades fall in love with her. The spell works but has unintended consequences that bring tragedy in their wake.
What holds attention in this slow-to-unravel tale (act one is a long 75 minutes; act two is 55 minutes) is the degree to which Ms. Hall immerses her audiences in the ordinary lives of her characters, the way they talk, the assumptions they have about their lives, and the simultaneous pulls of both the modern and the ancient. Credit the playwright with attention to detail in a fascinating portrayal of iconic character types.
Credit, too, director Nataki Garrett and her cast for being true to the detail in their portrayals. San Diego favorite Monique Gaffney makes herself invisible as the worldly wise Candy Lady, content both to help Toulou conjure her spells but also to let go of what happens next. "Shiftless" is today considered a poor choice of words, but Mr. James and Mr. Meyers effectively provide illustrations of two sides that term: the charming but unreliable man; and the man without great ambition to succeed who survives by domineering others.
As Toulou, Ms. Hughes holds center stage, both figuratively and literally. Her longing for empowerment is palpable, and her disappointment when things go wildly astray is equally so.
The technical work is also first rate. Scenic Designer David F. Weiner cleverly creates a shantytown world that is literal enough to be believable but flexible enough to create the several playing spaces called for in the script. Stephen Terry lights this dark and dreary world in like manner, and E. M. Gimenez's sound design blares out the depths of the Beale Street blues. Costume designer Jeannie Galioto has two shows running simultaneously (her other one is Moxie's Coming Attractions) and, while her designs for each are stylistic opposites, both are well-matched to their respective texts.
In the end, Hoodoo Love reveals its author's as yet underdeveloped skill more than anything else. But, it is clear from her more recent success that this play functions well as a promise of things to come.
Produced by Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company presents Hoodoo Love, by Katori Hall. Directed by Nataki Garrett with Travis Stephen Gooden (Music Director), David F. Weiner (Scenic Design), Jeannie Galioto (Costume Design), Stephen Terry (Lighting Design), Martin Gimenez (Sound Design), Will Widick (Properties Design), and Elizabeth Stephens (Stage Manager).
The cast includes Monique Gaffney (Candy Lady), Jasmine Hughes (Toulou), Stu James (Ace of Spades), and Kirkaldy Myers (Jib).
Performances through July 1, 2012, at The 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101. Tickets ($15 - $30) available by calling 619-342-7395 or by visiting the company's website, at www.moolelo.net.