by Barry David Horwitz
“Hurt Village” evokes the pain of poverty.
“Hurt Village” by Katori Hall presents a vivid portrait of life in a run-down apartment in the projects in Memphis, Tennessee in 2010. Hall shows us the trapped and restricted life of a sweet and sympathetic young girl, Cookie (a joyous Chaz Shermil), who raps out her life for us in an introductory song. She is talented and wants to be a rapper, but her prospects seem brutally limited.
When we meet her preoccupied and oppressed mother, Crank, a recovering heroin addict (the emotional Jasmine Hughes), we hope that the aspiring and beautiful cosmetologist can get her life together. They live with her hardworking and imposing great-grandma called Big Mama (a powerful Kimba Daniels). Their life is the all too familiar project story of people who are struggling to get by, but don’t have the time to care for themselves or build a future. Jobs and school are nearly impossible to come by.
In the wooden walls of the abandoned Grace Temple Church in Oakland, the Ubuntu Theater Project speaks to us about gentrifying neighborhoods, and the near-hopeless plight of the people who are being moved out of the “Hurt Village” in Memphis. The same wounds are being inflicted on the neighborhood just east of Lake Merritt where we are seeing the play. That’s Ubuntu’s site-specific production in their “Threatened Homes” season in the run-down but still beautiful Eastlake church on 12th Avenue, in Oakland.
Hall gives us a story right out of the casebook of poverty, oppression, inequality, injustice, and hopelessness. She immerses us in the depths of sorrow and gives each character a turn at solo time and a rap “turn,” where he or she tells us how it feels to be sinking into the surrounding poverty. Their stories are true, too true, and eventually begin to take on the familiar documentary themes of hopelessness, petty crime, and drug dealing.
The harsh reality evoked by the powerful actors becomes too much of a good thing, even with the relief of talented rap artists. There’s no escape and lots of pain in this play, leaving the talented and powerful actors with little room to redeem Hall’s doomed characters. Still, “Hurt Village” does serve as a precise teaching tool for anyone who has missed the point of all the “Threatened Homes” and threatened human beings around us—in The Mission, in Oakland, in your city.
All the characters indulge in exciting streams of words, and then they backslide into their former dangerous behavior. When Buggy, Cookie’s father (the stoic Tyrone Davis), comes home from the Iraq War, he seems to offer a strong and solid presence. He does his best to resist the lure of the streets and his old buddies still taking out their frustrations on each other.
There is joy in the rap contests of Cornbread (Roberto Martin) and Skillet (Leonard Thomas), and in the sexy strutting of the seductive Toyia (Kelsey Delemar). But in this sordid setting, even Buggy, the soldier, cannot fight the overwhelming racism, oppression, and poverty. They come to a predictable fate, which robs the play of its drama, even while musically celebrating their exuberance, their inventiveness, and their genius.
Cookie is a bright and hopeful spot in the flurry of street scenes and family fights, but gets preyed upon by the local pimp, Tony C (Myers Clark). Writer Katori Hall and director Nataki Garrett make these scenes affecting and emblematic of how the people in the dying project are forced to treat each other.
The director gives us sweet hints of love and caring. But soon their crumbling apartments will be displaced by an ill-conceived housing plan, giving no one on scene any chance at all. At best, we have a lively celebration of rap and originality, as the inhabitants of Hurt Village, like Big Mama, who works at a grueling hospital job, try to figure out welfare and survival. Soon, they will all be kicked out, so the city can gentrify. As happened in New York, Memphis, San Francisco, Oakland, everywhere.
And the play sharply shows how people can slide back into drug selling and drug taking in that hopelessness. Where is the hope for these trapped people? We sit in the abandoned Grace Baptist Church not far from Lake Merritt, and we can see the same gentrification and selling of the neighborhood going on around us. In the world of this prolonged drama, the wait goes on too long, the talk becomes exhausting, and help is still far off. Hall has reproduced the experience of their poverty and their beauty for all of us.
How many times does displacement have to happen before we demand fair housing for all? How many wars do we need to fight? How many more generations must suffer before the overdue revolutions begin?
“Hurt Village” continues at Grace Temple Church through July 31. For further information, click here.
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“Hurt Village” by Katori Hall. Produced by Ubuntu Theater Project. Director: Nataki Garrett. Lighting Designer: Stephanie Anne Johnson. Sound Designer: Andrew Vargas. Costume Designer: Jasmine Hughes.
Cookie: Chaz Shermil. Crank: Jasmine Hughes. Buggy: Tyrone Davis. Big Mama: Kimba Daniels. Cornbread: Roberto Martin. Toyia: Kelsey Delemar. Skillet: Leonard Thomas. Tony C: Myers Clark. Ebony: William Oliver III.