Katori Hall is a name you should remember as she just wrapped her broadway production of “Mountaintop” about Martin Luther King Jr., starring Angela Bassett and Samuel Jackson. If you missed that you can see her play, “Hurt Village” which opens this week at the Signature Theatre that was also written by Hall and is being adapted into a film. Directed by Patricia McGregor, “Hurt Village” is a gritty and raw look at the lives within a housing project in Memphis, Tennessee. The play starts and ends with Cookie – a thirteen year old girl who lives with her mother, Crank and Grandmother, Big Mama. Cookie bursts onto the stage in full rapping mode which is a prelude to more collective floetry from the entire ensemble, that only helps to build the work into exhilarating crescendos throughout the entire production.
Cookie is an earnest student and shows the most promise of fulfilling her dreams in a world that is incredibly difficult to imagine a better life. Her mother, played by Marsha Stephanie Blake is threatened by her daughter’s intelligence as she relies on Big Mama for a place to live. Big Mama has always worked for a living and has hopes of moving out to a better living situation, which includes a private bedroom – a simple dream she’s never been allowed to make a reality. We learn of her daughter who was a crack addict and died and the grandson, Buggy who returns home from Iraq after serving in the military. Buggy struggles to connect with his daughter, Cookie while being haunted by his trauma in Iraq.
A looming rumor of the housing project being torn down and replaced by high priced condos combined with Big Mama’s attempts to obtain a better home are not met with positive outcomes and lead the male persuasion into selling drugs as a way out – an option that is always available and attractive. All of the male characters in the play fall prey to Tony C, played by Ron Cephas Jones who runs the projects drug territory.
Hall has created a dark portrait of reality in the projects which presents few prospects and examples of a better life. The production is filled with profanities by it’s main characters who spew raw and poetic dialogue that isn’t superflous, but rather paints a vivid and honest portrayal to it’s audience.
Director Patricia McGregor has utilized the Romulus Linney Courtyard stage which is situated in the center with the audience seated on both sides. The effect is less of a traditional theater setting, but instead conjures up a boxing ring-like effect. McGregor is working with an explosive, yet poetic script and likely was fulfilled by her extremely talented cast who help escalate the material to nail biting heights. Much like the rap and poetry the cast integrates throughout the play, the script, cast and direction build to hilarious highs at times and deep lows that resonate for hours and possibly days for it’s audience.
Knowing that Katori Hall won the 2011 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for “Hurt Village” and had the script developed at the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab for an upcoming film should be reason enough to run and see this powerful and relevant production. “Hurt Village runs until March 18th at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th avenues). For tickets visit: www.signaturetheatre.org