SR review: “Hoodoo Love” at Raven Theatre

Director Wardell Julius Clark and an able cast work some Memphis magic with this early piece from playwright Katori Hall

Theater review by Kris Vire

Matthew James Elam and Martasia Jones in Hoodoo Love at Raven Theatre

The Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall is surely about to have a moment as the bookwriter of Tina—The Tina Turner Musical, which opens on Broadway this Thursday after an acclaimed premiere on London’s West End. It might even eclipse the heights that Hall reached with The Mountaintop, her fanciful imagining of the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; that 2009 drama announced Hall to the world, winning the Olivier Award for best new play and becoming one of the most-produced plays of the next several seasons in America.

Written some years before those flashy biographical projects, Hall’s Hoodoo Love nonetheless contains some of the same ambition, as well as inspiration from her Tennessee roots. (Tina naturally begins in Nutbush, while The Mountaintop is set in Memphis’s Lorraine Motel.) Hoodoo Love also takes place in Memphis, a few decades earlier; the action revolves around a pair of shacks not far from Beale Street during the Great Depression.

Shariba Rivers and Martasia Jones in Hoodoo Love at Raven Theatre

Toulou (Martasia Jones) is a recent arrival from Byhalia, Mississippi. She’s come looking to sing the blues but instead found bliss with another aspiring blues musician, the seductive Ace of Spades (Matthew James Elam). Bliss threatens to turn back to blues when Ace casually mentions Toulou is just one of a number of girls he entertains as he travels along the rails.

When Toulou’s big brother Jib (Christopher Wayland Jones) tracks her to Memphis, with his overly possessive manner belying his born-again airs, Toulou turns to neighbor Candylady (Shariba Rivers), a hoodoo practitioner, for a “trick” or two to get Jib off her back but keep Ace on his. Inevitably, things don’t go exactly as planned.

Christopher Wayland Jones and Matthew James Elam in Hoodoo Love at Raven Theatre

As in another of Hall’s early-career, Memphis-set works, the WWII-era drama Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, you can hear her influences speaking loudly through her. In Hoodoo, as in Saturday Night, there’s a heavy dose of Tennessee Williams’s melodrama and retrograde gender dynamics; here, too, is a strong vein of August Wilson in Hall’s sometimes self-consciously poetic dialogue.

Yet where my previous viewing of Hoodoo, in a 2012 staging at the Athenaeum Theatre directed by the late Nelsan Ellis, left me underwhelmed, Wardell Julius Clark’s new production at Raven finds flashes of surprise amid Hall’s often predictable plotting.

Clark’s assured, atmospheric staging, blessed with a top-notch non-Equity cast of actors on the hunt for honesty, cuts cleanly through most of the script’s archetypal clichés. (And speaking of clean cuts, scenic designer Sydney Lynne Thomas’s work deserves huge credit for one theatrical surprise that’s better executed than you often see at this budget level.) While I expect Hall to have greater corridors ahead of her, Raven’s Hoodoo achieves some modest magic.

Martasia Jones and Matthew James Elam in Hoodoo Love at Raven Theatre

Hoodoo Love

Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St). By Katori Hall. Directed by Wardell Julius Clark. Music direction by Ricky Harris.

Cast: Martasia Jones (Toulou), Shariba Rivers (Candylady), Matthew James Elam (Ace of Spades), Christopher Wayland Jones (Jib).

Designers: Sydney Lynne Thomas (scenic), Alexis Carrie (costumes), Sim Carpenter (lighting), Rachel Flesher (intimacy and violence), Dana Macel (props), Jeffrey Levin (sound and original music). Assistant director: Kiayla Ryann. Casting director: Catherine Miller. Stage manager: Elizabeth VanHaren.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes; one intermission. Through December 15. Tickets ($43–46) at raventheatre.com.

Photographs by Michael Brosilow.


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