Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Theater Review: Katori Hall’s Hurt Village

 Often discussed in a sociological context, poverty is a distant phenomenon for many of us.  It is what we critique in our college classes, lament among friends, and romanticize in rap lyrics. But at times, too many of us choose to dismiss it.

In her current off-Broadway play, Hurt Village, accomplished playwright Katori Hall compels our attention with characters whose struggles are profound, yet common. Through their stories, the alienating nature of poor people’s lives is eliminated, at least temporarily. With dynamic performances from the actors, we cannot help but feel for people who live with unimaginable pain, even if we do not particularly identify with their issues. The combination of great storytelling and acting makes for a good theater experience, even when our connection to the characters is made by empathizing with their misery, their hurt.

Set in Hall’s native Memphis, TN, the play explores the story of troubled family and friends, and their quest for survival revolves around real life housing projects aptly called Hurt Village. The protagonist, 13-year-old Cookie (Joaquina Kalukango), may be too young to create drama of her own. She is a curious student who is bussed to an all-white, presumably adequate school but cannot seem to escape the chaos of her home life: Crank, her abusive mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake), Buggy, an erratic father who has been out of her life until recently (Corey Hawkins), and a foul mouth, cantankerous grandmother called Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins). There are few characters to root for in this play, given their lack of drive and overall negativity. But I found myself wishing the best for Cookie, hoping she might avoid the allure of addiction, criminal activity, and the quicksand of despair that traps her family.

In an attempt to set Hurt Village apart from the typical story about poor black people, Hall includes criticisms of political issues, including welfare reform, affordable housing, and veterans’ struggles. Her criticisms are well taken but are not enough to make the play distinct in nature, especially with characters who are close to being caricatures.  The story may not be a creative one, but it is poignant and comical, though sometimes outlandish. However, it’s not every day our emotions channel those of others who live in a world away from us.

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