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Hurt Village

I had a dream once. I had a dream that by the time I was 55 I'd have my house to myself and wouldn't have to feed and raise no more chillen. I done already had mine, and I'm still raisin' chillen. . .
— Big Mama, who like so many impoverished black women has been forced by circumstance to maintain her role as family matriarch. She's still working a regular job.

Hurt Village
Tonya Pinkins as Big Mama
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
The black housing project for which Katori Hall's new play is named is less like home than a war zone. It's every bit as dangerous and disturbing as the distant wars this country has been involved in for too many years. Hurt Village in Memphis, Tennessee during the Bush administration is about to be torn down and many of its residents relocated. The chances that this will mean new beginnings for most of them is as unlikely as peaceful and democratic conditions being the permanent result of those Iraq and Afghanistan skirmishes.

The roadblocks to breaking out of the long ingrained pattern of poverty are daunting— limited job opportunities, too early pregnancies, inferior education, drugs and violence. The only character with the best potential to do so is the 13-year-old Cookie. That one in ten chance of getting out from under is symbolized by Cookie's science project which requires her to explain the behavior of fleas kept inside a jar. The way she explains her theory to her illiterate mother and neighbor sums up the play's disturbing but potent theme:
"Right now, the fleas keep on jumpin' up and they keep hittin' they head, right? Look. They crowd around the mason jar. After a while, they gone realize that if they jump so high, they gone ram they head into the lid. So, it's nine fleas up in there now. Well, after about a week the fleas stop jumpin' so high cause they know they gone bump they head. That's when you take off the lid. The fleas could jump out but because they done got tired of hurtin' theyself they won't jump no higher than the lid. Ain't nothin' holdin' them in, but they thank so. I bet if I leave the lid off, it'll still be nine fleas in there at the end of the week cause they ain't gone jump high enough to get out."
What happens in the weeks before Hurt Village is finally razed to the ground that determines whether Cookie will, like the one flea in the bottle of her project, get out to be what she's capable of being. It makes for a powerful story, with a vivid cast of characters and vibrant staging.

But be forewarned: Hurt Village is not an easy entertainment but a troubling, painful to watch story. If you're squeamish about vulgarity and cussing, be aware that the "N" word pops up in just about every other sentence, and there's no shortage of "mothafukahs" either. What's more, the dialogue is often beyond risque though, unless you're fluent in black inner city vernacular, you may miss a good deall of it. (The play is available in print together with Hall's Hoodoo Love and The Mountaintop).

The actors portraying the members of the inter-generational family at the center of the story are well cast: Joaquina Kalukango as Cookie, the hope of this and every other family trapped at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder is a knockout — wise beyond her years yet still wetting her bed and ignorant about the facts of life. The always reliable Tonya Pinkins is a towering presence as the weary martriarch who several times explodes into despair herself but knows she must once more gather the strength to give Cookie her chance and save her grandson from giving in to his worst self. Marsha Stephanie Blake's Crank will several times have you gritting your teeth at her abusive treatment of the daughter now the same age she was when she had her. Crank as the mother who's been too battered by a daddy-less childhood, juvenile crack use and pregnancy to express her love, is also the saddest member of this family. A scene that reveals the secret soul of a poet in this otherwise unlikeable woman is heartbreaking.

Corey Hawkins as Bugy is Hall's most complex character. He brings the fallout from the Iraq War into the already overloaded with problems ghetto. By joining the Marines he did get away for almost ten years. However, he took too much emotional baggage into his Marine life — and has now brought back even more. Yet it is through Bugy that Hurt Village escapes being a one-sided polemic. While Buggy's situation points to some pretty distressing policies towards veterans, it's Buggy who stops Big Mama's rants against "Them folk don't care nothin' ‘bout us. They want us dead." He points out that even a shelter would be no worse than the run down housing they've been living in. Most tellingly, he declares "Hell, 'they' ain't got to care bout you. . .Where 'they' hiding at? I ain't never seen't no 'they.' They' is you and you and you. . ." It's also Buggy who in his brief reconnection with his young daughter touchingly tells her about the birds and the bess and also suggest that if she learned to speak correctly she'd have a better chance to realize her dreams.

The chief players in this raw drama are energetically supported by the rest of the ensemble. Ron Cephas Jones is aptly menacing as Tony C , his white suit and hat making him an über gangster version of the urbane fictional chronicler of America, Tom Wolfe (Costume designer Clint Ramos also provides apt outfits for everyone else). Saycon Sengbloh as the fast-talking, loud mouthed upstairs neighbor Toyia adds a much needed touch of humor; her work as an exotic dancer making her a novel feminist.

David Gallo has made impressive use of the new 199-seat Linney Theater's stage which is in the middle of the 199 stadium seats. The cluttered two level apartments where nothing is in working order and the dump that's an outdoor gathering place adds to the devastating atmospherics.

Under Off-Broadway debuting director Patricia McGregor's guidance, the actors face each side of the audience even handedly and smoothly. Except for one tiny balcony section, sightlines are good, no matter where you sit in this second of the new Signature Theater Center's three theaters I've now experienced.

Hurt Village is certainly more of a play than Ms. Hall's The Mountaintop — at two and a half hours, too much so! Some trimming would certainly have been in order. A glossary inserted into the program would also make some audiences feel less lost in the fast tempo inner city vernacular. Though Hurt Village has already earned the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, it's not a sure bet as a crowd pleasers. Even those not troubled by strong and often obscene dialogue, will not find it easy to revisit a segment of the American Experience they might prefer to forget, especially at a time when economic conditions don't bode well for the many still (and even for the first time) unable to do for their families.

Hurt Village by Katori Hall.
Directed by Patricia McGregor
Cast: Marsha Stephanie Blake (Crank), Nicholas Christopher (Cornbread), Corey Hawkins (Boogie), Charlie Hudson III (Ebony), Ron Cephas Jones (Tony C), Joaquina Kalukango (/Cookie), Tonya Pinkins (Big Mama), Saycon Sengbloh (Toyia), Lloyd Watts (Skillet).
Sets and Projection Design: David Gallo
Costumes: Clint Ramos
Lighting: Sarah Sidman
Hair, Wig and Make-Up: Cookie Jordan
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson Stage Manager: Jane Pole
Approximate running time: 2 hr, 40 min. with intermission.
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at Signature Center 440 W. 42nd St.212-244-7529
From 2/07/12; opening 2/27/12; closing 3/18/12
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at Feb. 24th press preview
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