Review: ‘Hoodoo Love’ at Arena Players

Katori Hall’s Hoodoo Love is like a three-hour, heartache-filled blues song. Set in Memphis in the 1930s, the memories of slavery still linger and the reality of life in the south for African Americans is not easy. Arena Players, the longest continuously running African American community theater in the country, squeezes out the juices of the play’s blues through a leisurely, well-acted production, on stage through April 29 in Baltimore.

The cast of Hoodoo Love. Photo courtesy of Arena Players Incorporated.
The cast of Hoodoo Love. Photo courtesy of Arena Players Incorporated.

Toulou (IO Browne) has been knocked down many times in her young life, but she maintains an idealistic hope for something better for herself. She loves bluesman Ace of Spades (Quinton Randall), and does everything in her power – including casting a hoodoo spell with the help of her neighbor, Candylady (Theresa Terry) – to make him stop traveling from town to town and from woman to woman.

Toulou is thrown out of sorts when her alcoholic preacher brother, Jib (Quincy Vicks), finds her in Memphis, and forcefully injects himself into her life. And that’s just the first act. The second act continues a storyline of Toulou’s blues singing ambition and deeper dependence on hoodoo, a folk cousin of the voodoo religion. Think mojo bags and burying an orange under your lover’s house to get him to dream of you.

Director David D. Mitchell keeps Toulou on stage throughout almost the entire show, and Browne impressively maintains an emotional virility that ranges from optimistic to fearful to bitter to hopeful. Her strong energy is matched by Vicks, who adds layers and sympathy to a character who easily could have fallen into villainous caricature. Browne and Vicks have an especially intense scene together in the second act that graphically expresses what had only been suggested before. I couldn’t take my eyes away from them. Both Morgan State University theater grads, Browne and Vicks are very polished, and provide an appealing contrast to the looseness of Randall as Ace and Terry as Candylady.

This is Randall’s stage debut, a Baltimore-based musician, and his gritty, soulful voice and solid guitar playing are showcased several times in Hoodoo Love. Although new to acting, he seems natural and almost benevolent on stage, delivering a couple of moving monologues facing out to the audience. I wish he had annunciated more clearly and projected better throughout, though. Much of his dialogue was lost.

Terry had similar delivery issues. However, her portrayal of the local hoodoo lady worked well. She plays Candylady with an easygoing manner, which makes her revelations about her past hit hard. She talks about the past husbands held spiritually in her red velvet mojo pouch with delight, sharing how she worked in the cotton fields with her first husband, “Winky,” and then matter-of-factly recalling how he was sold up the river, before quickly moving on to her second husband, who was a “sweet motherfucker.” The ensemble works well together. Mitchell told me they had to replace one of the actors about a week before opening, and it’s a testament to this cast that I could not guess which actor was the replacement.

Mitchell makes some bold directorial choices, including incorporating two graphic sex scenes. He also does double-duty as set designer. He creates two shanty homes with platforms to represent Toulou’s and Candylady’s living quarters, and actors enter and exit through a narrow greenery-lined passage between them. Brightly colored quilts and newspaper-covered walls fill out the space. Train tracks painted on the wall to the left of the stage are lit throughout, highlighting the transience of Ace, Toulou, and Jib. They’re symbolic for Toulou’s hope, too. They bring her love to her, and promise to take her to a better life.

The sound design by Randolph Smith is a mash up of different styles. I had hoped to hear mostly delta blues, but the music choices included modern, electric guitar blues, some strange, spacey ’80s synth music, and a whole lot of a cappella singing.

Hall’s script is rich in folklore, drama, symbolism and the spirit-twisting power of blues music. Arena Players’ production could be tightened, but within the looseness is a lot of breathing room for Toulou’s story to moan and wail like a Bessie Smith record.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Hoodoo Love plays through April 29, 2018, at Arena Players – 801 McCulloh Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call 410-728-6500, or purchase them online.