Smile Politely

“The bluest voice I’ve ever heard”: Conjures and cruelty in Hoodoo Love

Earth root him near me
Earth make him stay
Earth root him near me
Never go away (Toulou in Hoodoo Love)

Most of us are surely familiar with the deep-seated discrimination and wretched poverty that African Americans endured in the south during the 1930s: The Jim Crow laws that kept them disenfranchised and ignorant for decades, the casual violence, and the institutional discrimination that caused such desperate poverty. In her play Hoodoo Love, Katori Hall shows us that 1930s African American culture itself brought about violence, poverty, and cruelty toward its people, especially its women:

Hall’s characters are not saints. They are the products of their environment who embody a dichotomy of violence alongside an indomitable human capacity for humor, tenderness, and desire. (Rachel Price Cooper, “Dramaturg’s Note”)

Hoodoo Love tells the story of four people scratching out a living in Memphis during the Great Depression: Toulou — a young woman who dreams of singing the Blues; Candylady — a Hoodoo priestess and Toulou’s friend and spiritual advisor; Ace of Spades — Toulou’s casual lover, who also hopes to make it as a Blues singer; and Jib — Toulou’s vile brother, a preacher of the Jimmy Swaggart type.

A fifth “character” in the play is the whistle of the nearby train that blows so regularly that the people time their lives by it. Toulou’s hopes and dreams — the only future she really wants — are tied to the whistle of that train. Indeed, all of the characters are influenced by the haunting whistle as one train follows another, tantalizing them with visions of freedom or torturing them with memories of loss.

Toulou loves Ace, and hates that he has “a behind like a caboose.” Willing to do anything for a “piece of [his] heart,” she plots to put an end to his wanderlust and, with Candylady’s help, casts a Hoodoo love spell. The magic works; Ace falls in love with Toulou and they jump the broom together. For a time, Toulou is foolish enough to think that the magic will have no repercussions. But when things inevitably fall apart, she’s left broken and alone, abandoned by everyone in her life, including (temporarily) Candylady.

Candylady says of herself, “I might can’t read, but you ain’t messin’ with no fool,” and she’s not lying. She is a powerful, intriguing, and disappointingly flawed character. What is she really to Toulou? She says that she’s her friend, and I think that she might even believe that, but she encourages Toulou to betray those she loves and when Toulou needs her the most, she becomes the betrayer.

Hoodoo Love is well directed, and the cast (including the ensemble) is impressive. As Toulou, Kalyn N. C. Rivers is able to display heartbreaking vulnerability, while still exhibiting strength and a controlled rage that is evident all over her body. Rivers also has a strong, soulful voice, and she’s more than capable of singing the mournful songs in the play’s musical score.

Julian Parker is equally impressive. The character of Jib is a loathsome, dangerous creature, and at one point, when Parker affects a mocking, fake expression of innocence, I experienced a moment of hatred for Jib that felt real. Not a lot of actors can trigger those kinds of strong feelings in me, and I love it when it happens, so my thanks to Parker.

I’ve enjoyed Tyrone Phillips and Mercedes White in numerous productions now — at least seven plays between them. They are both brilliant talents. Phillips is one of those rare actors that can perform comedy and drama with equal ability, and I’ve come to trust that if he’s in a play, I’ll enjoy him in whatever role he’s performing.

Mercedes White, as Candylady, is simply extraordinary. White can disappear into a role so completely that it’s startling, and she owned the stage on Saturday. Having discussed Candylady’s questionable morality above, what surprises me the most is that I consider her the only truly likable character in the entire play. And yet, second only to Jib, I also consider her the least ethical of the bunch. How can this be? White’s talent is how it can be. Candylady’s aptitude in persuading her neighbors to buy her potions is due to her ability to convince them that she wants what’s best for them. She convinces them that she’s caring. She convinces them that she’s trustworthy. And she probably believes all of this about herself as well. Because White understands this multifaceted character, and because she’s got the talent to pull it off, the audience believes it too.

Before closing, I should mention the sound and light effects (Elizabeth Parthum and Lara Wilder, respectively). The sound effects (the whistle of the train; the thunderstorm) are admirably realistic. And Wilder’s light effects portray the morning dawn and sunsets beautifully. It all results in a spare, but lovely setting.

I won’t say that this play consistently moved or captivated me. In my opinion, the story moves far too slowly at times. But Hoodoo Love has moments of brilliance, and is being led and performed by an enormously talented cast and director (Robert Ramirez). It is never boring, never cautious, and never dishonest. It’s a grim tale, morose, and — at times — almost unbearable to watch. But it’s definitely worth watching. And if you watch it, you can’t say that I haven’t warned you!


Future Shows:

Wednesday–Saturday, October 12–15, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, October 16, 3:00 p.m.

Studio Theatre


This play contains strong adult content, and is for mature audiences only.

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