Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Hurt Village

I don't doubt the accuracy of the picture Katori Hall paints of the former Memphis project she's titled her play Hurt Village after. Though many of her characters come across as stereotypes, I don't believe them any less: there's a reason stereotypes exist, whether that's fair or not, and the ensemble embodies them well. But there's a reason theater is a different medium than photography or painting: it's a three-dimensional, living art form, and must do more than simply show a moment in time. It must breathe life into its characters long enough for us to care about them, not just their social circumstances, otherwise it's just a rawer sort of propaganda. It's a little telling that I felt more uncomfortable at the talk-back following Hurt Village than I did during the production itself -- uncomfortable with how shocked the audience was that parts of America look and sound like this. (In that sense, however, Hurt Village is a success.)

But while Hurt Village may have achieved its goal to shock people -- a shallow goal, if you ask me (look at the difference between the gruel of Thomas Bradshaw and the manna of Young Jean Lee) -- it misses out on opportunities to nurture empathy and provoke outrage. The script jumps around far too much, settling on all of the things that it is not rather than any one thing that it is: it is not a coming-of-age story for Cookie (Joaquina Kalukango), a thirteen-year-old girl who has said fuck the village and decided to raise herself; it is not a tale of the neglected soldier Buggy (Corey Hawkins), whose dishonorable discharge after ten years of service has all but forced him to once again start dealing drugs with his buddy Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher); it is not about the inadequacies of the welfare state, in which Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins) discovers that despite the government's choice to evict her from a one-bedroom project where she works night shifts and lives with her unemployed daughter-in-law Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and granddaughter Cookie, she makes roughly $400 too much to qualify for Section 8 housing, and therefore may end up on the street. There's no real resolution or development to any of these characters or situations, just an emphasis (well-enhanced by set designer David Gallo and the raw direction of Patricia McGregor) on how awful all of this is.

[Read on]

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