(Review by Tulis McCall)
Hurt Village is a housing project in Memphis. The time is the second Bush term. The project is about to be torn down to make room for a spiffy development that will erase the memory of the original tenants. Hurt Village is “A constellation of garbage and debris.” It is a place about which no one cares, unless they live there. This play is about those people. Like the place that they call home, these people have seen better days. And the future is not looking all that hot.
The narrator of this story is the 13-year old Cookie (Joaquina Kalukango) who is a rapper. Cookie, at her tender age, is lamenting the good old days when it was safe to play outside in the projects. Things have changed. They are one of the last families in the project and everyone is down on their luck. “Folks round here so po’ we can’t even afford the r at the end.”
Cookie’s mother, Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is a recovering addict who has been clean for three years. She had Cookie when she herself was 13. Crank is on welfare and has dreams of becoming a hairdresser. She takes care of her neighbors’ hair to bring in a bit of change. They live with Cookie’s great-grandmother, Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins) who is an orderly in the Veteran’s hospital and the one who keeps a roof, such as it is, over their heads. Big Mama is an impressive combination of resentment and dreams. She is in the cross-hairs of life and no one has ever given her a break, no matter how hard she has tried. But there is one spec of glitter on the horizon: they have qualified for a house in the suburbs when they leave Hurt Village. And as far as she is concerned the white folks can up and move away from the in-coming black families until they end up in the ocean. Screw them.
The neighbors in this complex are scrambling to stay afloat as well. Toyia (Saycon Sengbloh) and Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher) are tethered loosely by the baby they share. Cornbread works at FedEx for $5 an hour and supplements his income selling drugs. Skillet (Lloyd Watts) and Ebony (Charlie Hudson III) pass through like opposing peas in a pod. Skillet is scarred and slow; Ebony is quick with his mouth and his feet and a little dangerous. Tony C. (Ron Cephas Jones) strolls in periodically as the king of this part of town and sends a cold chill down everyone’s spine including ours. Into this mix returns Cookie’s father, Buggy (Corey Hawkins) who drags the wounds of war with him. An unstable man returning to a little slice of Purgatory.
These people’s lives layer themselves together so deeply that one does not move without affecting the other. They are each other’s lifelines. They make their own joyful noise. They suffer their own particular pain. They are a village. And under it all is the question of what will happen to them in the great upheaval. When the housing people come to get them, and they are removed from one another’s lives, what will happen then?
As a technical note, much of the dialogue is lost when an actor turns to face one half of the audience. With the added element that the dialogue is Southern and in a particular dialect, it is easy to miss entire sentences. This is not the case for all the actors. Ms. Pinkins and Mr. Cephas Jones never drop a syllable while Ms. Sengbloh is nearly unintelligible at times. Ms. McGregor’s direction is strong and confident for the most part, which is why the audio deficiencies are glaring. Some calibration is in order.
Ms. Hall is writing in the tradition of playwrights who see a part of life, about which most of us don’t know and fewer of us care, and choose to shine a light on that corner. Because Signature theatre is producing this play it will be seen by a lot of people who simply wouldn’t bother were it somewhere else – Harlem for instance. Bravo to this partnership! This is not a safe play. It is not a play created to reassure us. It is a play that takes a pick-ax to the ground over and over again and exposes a place in which the residents conclude that “America ain’t shit.” And in the face of that knowledge they choose to stay in the ring and duke it out.
"While 'Hurt Village' has its problems, being depressing isn’t one of them."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Stories about the cycle of poverty are common, but the fine acting does wonders to drive this one home."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Has enough grace notes to make you stand up and pay attention."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Tangy, flavorful dialogue, energetically performed by an enthusiastic cast and explosively directed by McGregor."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Although the story is sorrowful, the play is streaked with humor and marked by Hall’s realistic yet subtly heightened dialogue"
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"Dramatically unruly but terrifically exciting work."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...