“Hurt Village” opens with a Black, female emcee named “Cookie,” rapping on an electric box. I could stop right there and we could take a millennia to unwrap that multilayered magnificence. Cookie (brilliantly played by Joaquina Kalukango, a recent Julliard graduate), is vastly overexposed yet precociously naïve for her tender age of thirteen. As sweet as can be, Cookie sets the stage by informing us that in her public housing project, “Hurt Village always been bad but it done got really bad. They done already moved most of us out." That may be the only thing Cookie tells us without cussing up a storm. But with that revelation, playwright, Katori Hall, has done it again!
Fresh off the Broadway closing of “The Mountaintop,” the fictional account of the famous, Martin Luther King, Jr., Hall now immerses her audiences into the Southern, urban culture reflective of the residents of “Hurt Village.” Indeed, “The Untouchables,” are easily the legacy of the unfulfilled “Poor Peoples’ Movement” MLK, Jr. attempted to launch by going to Memphis at the request of the sanitation workers, in the first place. Now on the verge of total demolition, Hurt Village is a, literal, mountainous heap of trash in the courtyard, peopled by a world most would much rather ignore—which is precisely Katori Hall has placed them center stage.
Set designer David Gallo, creates a gorgeously impoverished set, wherein piles of chairs, televisions, fans, buckets and rope are made sustainable solely out of necessity, beckoning the last remnants of displacement. Soon, the Hurt Village projects will be replaced with “mixed income housing” and developers will, undoubtedly, rebrand the area and erase the stain of urban blight. But even in its present state, when Tony C (Ron Cephas Jones), the neighborhood drug dealer declares, “This is PRIME real estate,” he celebrates a ruggedly individualistic, greedy ideology and callousness wholly reflective of stereotypical, Wall Street executives.
Occupy a theatre seat; because the magical liaison between Katori Hall, a raw, unnerving storyteller as playwright, and the capable and insightful director, Patricia McGregor, is a welcome dance and an intimate interrogation of character, thought and movement that infuses every aspect of the play and beckons us to fall in love. So, this is what it’s like to have two, brilliant Black women sharing their vision. It’s a stunningly wonderful and welcomed, Theatre for Social Change. As a true ensemble production, every actor has at least one poignant moment to shine and each of them blasts the audience with rays of their blistering humanity. When Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins) finds her way to her knees, when Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake) decides to ask for assistance one last time, when Buggy (Corey Hawkins) displays his massive bravery and cowardice, when Toyia (Saycon Sengbloh) roars her feminism despite looking like she leapt off of the cover of King Magazine, when Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher) so excellently stands his biracial ground, when Ebony (Charlie Hudson, III) vomits his rap lyrics onstage and Skillet (Lloyd Watts) stumbles his gentility and sophistication, they each make you feel their choking, intense pain and their seemingly boundless hope. They are in the world but, as America would have it, mostly ignored and left to be parasites, predators or promise-keepers, unto themselves.
Katori Hall is bringin’ it to you because she is nothing shy of a 21st century Zora Neale Hurston. As such, she holds no punches, harbors no pretenses and welcomes you to learn the language of “the folk” who are known for the tall tales they share on their front porches and stoops. The “ring shout” scene in which “Yo Mama” jokes, an uproariously incisive display of the dozens and an exuberant showcasing of complex thought, beats and lyricism is, perhaps, Hall and McGregor, at their best. We are all invited to the cipher and in avid celebration at its finale.
Hurt Village is also going to hit you. Hard. I yell-laughed throughout many of the scenes but, often, tears soaked my face. Like an August Wilson play, steeped in regionalism and hyperlocal culture, you will have to listen closely and study hard, because Katori Hall is testing every fiber of your humanity. This is the wonder and magic of live theater and what the Signature Theater team has to offer. If you’re not ready to deal with the bombastic brilliance they present onstage when they tell you, “Listen up, cause this be a cautionary tale,” you may just want to get a safety belt and strap yourself in, lest you get hurt.
Hurt Village is at the Signature Theater, 480 West 42nd Street and runs through March 18. Be mindful of the shows with talkbacks. All Seats, all shows are just $25.
Kimberly C. Ellis, Ph.D. is a Scholar of African American Theatre and hosts #TheatreChat on Twitter. She can be reached at @drgoddess and http://drgoddess.com