Last fall, Katori Hall established herself as a bankable playwright with the slick, star-driven Broadway hit The Mountaintop. Now, she’s proven herself an accomplished one with Hurt Village, a sprawling, cacophonous elegy on Dubya-era life in a Memphis, Tenn., housing project.
Thanks to the intimate confines of the 245-seat Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at Off Broadway’s just-opened Signature Center, audiences are practically plunged into the ”modern day wasteland” of Hall’s memory. And David Gallo’s tattered, torn-up set?half junkyard, half family room, wholly depressing — is seedy perfection. But Hall’s characters and her lyrical prose would be memorable no matter the geographic setting. There’s crack-house king Tony C (Ron Cephas Jones), Tony’s crony Ebony (Charlie Hudson III), the badly scarred, big-hearted Skillet (Lloyd Watts), small-time pusher Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher), his self-proclaimed feminist baby mama Toyia (Saycon Sengbloh), her BFF — or ”ace boon coon,” as they call each other — Crank, a crackhead-turned-hairdresser (Marsha Stephanie Blake), Crank’s crazy just-back-from-Iraq ex-lover Buggy (Corey Hawkins). But the show’s two standouts are Buggy’s baseball bat-carrying grandmother, Big Mama (played by a de-glammed, padded, aged, and incredible Tonya Pinkins) and Crank and Buggy’s 13-year-old daughter, Cookie (23-year-old Joaquina Kalukango, in a star-making performance). Cookie is the play’s heroine, voice of reason, and guidepost — an amateur rapper who throws down some sick rhymes but thinks babies happen when ”a boy put his wee wee in a girl mouth.” Cookie’s the kind of character you want to reach out and clutch onto — and the kind of whip-smart girl you always want to have in your corner.
She’s also the kind of character you want to get to know more about. At two and a half hours, Hurt Village doesn’t need to be longer; in fact, it’s both too much and not enough. (A speech by Buggy meant to shed light on his war experience, for instance, is revealing only for its lack of backstory.) I’d love to see Hall return to the Hurt — perhaps to the house next door, or another down the block — like August Wilson did time and again with Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Maybe a couple decades ago, when it wasn’t quite the neighborhood Cookie describes: ”I mean Hurt Village always been bad, but it done got bad-bad, like you-betta-move-yo-Big Mama-out-these-muthaf—in-projects-fo-she-get-gang raped-robbed-and-murdered by-her-Gangsta Disciple crack head son bad.” Or during the Obama years, after the HOPE grant that’s now forcing Big Mama and Co. out of their home. In her script, Hall also describes her Hurt Village as a ”beautiful broken land.” We’ve seen the beauty. Clearly there’s more to behold. B+
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)