On Seeing Hoodoo Love

by Lola E. Peters

Hoodoo Love is a play about a Black woman’s journey of fear, vulnerability, self-sufficiency, compromise, brokenness, strength, resilience, and life in the face of multi-generational social, economic, and religious oppression and violence.

Produced by Sound Theatre Company (STC) in collaboration with The Hansberry Project, July 14th was the second preview night of Hoodoo Love at the Center Theatre in Seattle Center’s Armory building. It is an intimate space. The first row of seats is level with the stage floor and no barriers separate the stage action from the audience. This closeness draws the audience into the play as though we are peeking into the actors’ personal spaces, which, of course, we are.

The Hoodoo Love set is busy, but simple. Upstage center there are large trees, giving the sense of an outdoor space. Right center stage is Toulou’s cottage. The cottage “ceiling” is made of slatted wood boards angled upward from the back wall toward the audience, like an opened box lid, inviting the audience in. The audience is about ten feet away.

Set of Hoodoo Love. [Photo courtesy of Sound Theatre Company]
A bed sits lengthwise in the cottage at far right center stage, signifying the outside wall of the cottage. A few feet away from the bed there’s a small square table with a chair on one side and a short stool on the other.

CandyLady’s store/home sits at left center stage. The ceiling to this structure is also angled upward; only its angle faces Toulou’s cottage and not the audience. This design evokes much more privacy. The back wall of the cottage is lined with multiple shelves filled with ceramic, glass, and copper jars and jugs.

Before the play begins Teresa Thuman, STC’s Founding/Producing Artistic Director, welcomes the audience then introduces The Hansberry Project’s Artistic Director, Valerie Curtis-Newton. Curtis-Newton explains that this presentation grew out of last summer’s public readings of plays by African American women. The Hansberry Project and STC explored the works of those playwrights who participated and, based on capacity and artistic considerations, decided to bring Hoodoo Love to STC’s Seattle audience.

Curtis-Newton invites the audience to turn off our cellphones and other distractions, sit back for a moment in silence, and listen to the music of Chic Street Man. The lights go out and for a few moments the music plays.

When the lights come back up, Toulou (Porscha Shaw) sits on the bench in front of her cottage dressed in a knee-length, bright blue, cotton, shirt-dress. She wistfully sings a verse from a blues tune about getting on a train and leaving like a man. Her voice is strong, lovely. The lights go out.

When the lights come back up, Toulou and her lover, Ace of Spades (Andrè G. Brown), are on the bed in the active, ending throes of missionary-position sex: their heads toward the audience; she topless with her white slip pulled around her waist, below her breasts, and up above her legs; he naked. Complete and satisfied, they each rise from the bed and begin to dress. We hear the distant sound of a train whistle, and itinerant bluesman Ace tells Toulou how grateful he is that she isn’t like some of his other women, who insist he stay with them. Toulou’s facial response lets us know she just learned something new. As they continue to dress, they negotiate their relationship. He then leaves.

Actors Porscha Shaw (left) and Andrè G. Brown. [Photo courtesy of Sound Theatre Company]
Toulou goes outside to take laundry down from the clothesline strung between her cottage and CandyLady’s. CandyLady (Eva Abram) steps out and offers to give Toulou a ‘trick’, a way to cast a spell that would bring Ace back and keep him. They banter back and forth about the merits of using ‘tricks.’

We then see Jib (Corey Spruill), in a powder-blue suit, walking upstage center through the trees toward the cottages. Toulou’s expression turns to fear and horror when she sees him. He introduces himself to CandyLady as Toulou’s brother, and explains he just finished training as a minister and has come to Memphis from their home in Mississippi to find his sister and start his own church.

So begins Toulou’s journey through family, power, place, identity, and values.

Ms. Shaw’s portrayal of Toulou is beautiful, nuanced, and power-filled. During the intermission, I found myself wondering if she has trained as a dancer, as her smallest movements were so in tune with the emotional tenor of the dialogue. At one point Toulou and Ace are sitting on the bed, facing the audience, with his arm around her waist and one of her feet dangling, crossed, above the other. He says something charming and affectionate to her. During her response, she makes a small figure-8 with her foot. That tiny, nuanced, movement deeply underscored Toulou’s happiness in that moment and made it authentic. Ms. Shaw filled the action with delightful, subtle surprises like that.

Andrè G. Brown as Ace gives us a strong counterpoint to Toulou. Where she begins the story unsure of herself, he starts with complete assurance of his future. Where the audience is invited to objectify or stereotype them both, their arcs cross and we see them each move separately into counterbalanced nuance and depth. Mr. Brown doesn’t allow us to get lazy in our view of Ace. Even as Ace becomes a seemingly unwitting collaborator in Toulou’s struggle, by exposing his vulnerability Brown gives us reason to root for him.

Eva Abram as CandyLady is the grounding in this story. As others’ emotions ebb and flow, hers are steady. Though dressed in multiple layers throughout, there is litheness to her movements, yet still solidity. While the other characters are often shod, she is barefoot. Her language is earthy, unvarnished. Playwright Katori Hall has written CandyLady as a respected elder, complex woman, and roots practitioner. Abram never allowed us to focus on any one of those traits, but rather encouraged us to accept them all.

It is Corey Spruill’s portrayal of Jib I found problematic. He is at his best once his evil is unmasked. In the beginning, though, he comes on stage almost like a clown. It cannot be an easy task to play an absurd, yet dangerous, man who sees himself as righteous. It’s a thin line he has to walk. However, he doesn’t seem to take the part at all seriously, which is counter to the real self-image of Black ministers of that era. When Jib throws around Bible verses, he invites us to laugh at him not because of the absurdity of his timing or actions, but because he doesn’t seem to take them all that seriously himself. Again, this is counter to real-life experience of anyone who has dealt with newly-emerging clergy of any era. Hopefully, Mr. Spruill will settle into the role during previews and find that challenging sweet spot of serious absurdity.

After the performance, Director Malika Oyetimein and Ms. Curtis-Newton took the stage for a short conversation about the play and a question/answer session with audience members. They began by talking about the impact of a difference in the makeup of the audience. This performance had a large number of African Americans in the audience. The night before was apparently almost entirely a White audience. Ms. Oyetimein mentioned the different reactions to a scene where a broom was used. African Americans understood and responded to the significance of the broom immediately, while White audience members didn’t respond until the later words were spoken to clarify the character’s intent.

Hoodoo Love contains references rooted in African American experience and culture, much as Shakespeare is filled with references specific to Elizabethan England. It gives the audience a chance to explore their own understanding of the culture at the root. Curtis-Newton said, “I’ve learned that I have to spend the first ten minutes of a Black play teaching White audience how to hear it.”

When the Q&A began, a White audience member remarked that he thought the play was universal. Curtis-Newton stopped him mid-sentence. She rejected his assertion and pointed out that the story was very specifically African American, and even more narrowly a Black woman’s story. She welcomed the idea that he believed there were parts of the story where White people could find empathy and connection, but she was adamant that his premise of universality was, in fact, a way to erase the very unique and specific experiences of African Americans.

After that exchange, a White woman wanted to make the play universally about the struggles of women. I wondered when in U.S. history White women turned to roots and herbs to keep their relationships. I wondered when in U.S. history White women’s husbands were lynched because of their success. I wondered when in U.S. history White women’s children were taken and sold away from them. I wondered how people could so unconsciously erase portions of a play they had just witnessed.

Last summer, I interviewed Valerie Curtis-Newton for the Emerald. She said she wanted to spotlight plays that centered the experience of African Americans. Hoodoo Love is definitely one of those plays. Congratulations to Hansberry Project and Sound Theatre Company for seeing the power in mounting this production. It will be playing through July 30th. Tickets are available here. The play contains depictions of sex and violence.

Lola E. Peters is a poet and essayist. She is currently an Editor-at- Large for the South Seattle Emerald.