My first impression of the set of Hurt Village, the new play by Katori Hall at the Signature Theatre, was its Kienholz look. As in the work of the American installation artist, the eclectically assembled furnishings—an oversized plastic-wrapped sofa, blood-red kitchen, chain-link fences, graffiti, a solitary lamppost—evoked realism in loose, expressive brushstrokes, with a touch of the sinister.
The set befitted the play, which grapples with recognizable themes in bold and vigorous, if not always new, ways. Cookie, a 13-year-old rapper, is a resident of the Hurt Village project in Memphis that’s about to be bulldozed to clear space for new condominiums. Cookie’s precocious linguistic gifts clash poignantly with her at times shaky grammar. From the start, she’s the play’s anchor—no small feat, considering how seamlessly a relative newcomer to the professional stage, Joaquina Kalukango, balances Cookie’s childish schoolgirl angst, her bedwetting and sexual curio, with learning to hold her own, in a brutally adult world.
Cookie’s mother, Crank, played by Marsha Stephanie Blake, is a spectacle of willful reticence. Her inability to express love for a child she conceived as an adolescent, and who’s quickly outgrown her rudimentary learning, slowly acquires softer, more tragic overtones. Cookie’s biological father, Buggy, returns home after 10 years of military service—his last post in Iraq. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and constantly popping pills, he’s more a phantom than a father figure, in spite of the boyish charm lent to the role by actor Corey Hawkins. Holding it together is Big Mama, Cookie’s paternal grandmother, who like Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage can be short on comforting words but tireless in providing for her children. Big Mama’s weariness, conveyed perfectly by previous OBIE winner Tonya Pinkins, sets the tone for the production (“God takes care of fools, but the rest of us have to take care of ourselves”). And if her prototype also seems to be found in Mama, in A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, her tough-as-nails persona is a considerable embellishment on the original.
Hall borrows Shakespeare’s line from The Tempest, “what’s past is prologue,” as the play’s opening, and her message is clear: As Buggy puts it, “the more you run away from who you is, the more it follow you.” Crank fails to stay off crack and loses her parental rights. Big Mama, whose hospital job puts her barely over minimum earnings, must beg her way into the Hope relocation program for the poor. Buggy returns to drug dealing. He challenges Tony C., the local drug lord and sleek, white-clad villain, whose rage against corrupt officials and cutthroat developers is a thin veil for his own callousness. The new victims and crimes are but echoes of the earlier ones, including the drug dealers’ gang rape of Buggy’s mother and her overdose, or Buggy’s sexually assaulting Arab women on his military missions. In the overwhelming parade of failure and chronic, nearly Oedipal guilt, only Cookie rings a surprisingly ardent note, when she says that she will miss Hurt Village, for all the people it has brought her way.
The drug-dealing material may seem familiar, more scrupulously explored in The Wire, but Hall’s work is remarkable for her keen ear for wisecracks and irreverent, self-deprecating humor, as in a scene where Crank’s friend reenacts a showdown she staged at a clinic when a doctor suggested tying her tubes—“a mechanical approach” for “a woman with your history.” Hall sprinkles just enough tartness and lyricism not to slip into a melodrama, though she comes close at times. Broken into chapters, with sardonic Brechtian titles, such as “America Ain’t Shit” and “Tony C’s Emancipation Proclamation,” the play maintains a swift tempo, thanks to the spirited directing of Patricia McGregor, and to a capable ensemble, aided by a dialect coach and a jookin’ (also known as gangsta walking) dance consultant.
Hall’s previous play, The Mountaintop, was an imaginary enactment of Martin Luther King’s last night before his assassination. In Hurt Village, the civil rights icon’s photo proudly hangs on the wall, but his “I have a dream” has been turned into Big Mama’s cantankerous “I once had a dream too.” At her best, Hall makes all her characters’ plights resonate with such powerful, sly directness. At other times, as in Cookie’s science project, to test her hypothesis that fleas trapped in a jar give up on escape after a while, apathetic even when the cap is removed, Hall forces the metaphor, wringing out a symbolic truth about crushed wills and thwarted aspirations. More effective are Hall’s jaunty cross-overs from low to high registers, as when Crank startlingly explains her getting back on crack: “what gets niggas” are “boredom and chaos,” or when Big Mama remarks that her son’s “honorable discharge” is like saying “crazy nigga.” Ultimately, the play’s most bracing lines are hers. Shortly before leaving the stage, she says, “I wasn’t the best Mama, who the fuck is,” then adds, “but I’m still here.”
Hurt Village runs through March 25 at the Signature Theatre.