Theater Review: HOODOO LOVE (Raven Theatre in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 6, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Whether it really works or it’s just self-fulfilling wishful thinking, magic can misfire.  Detailing a downhome tragedy set in Memphis during the Depression, Hoodoo Love, Katori Hall’s 2007 musical drama tells a sad and simple story of thwarted and twisted passion so strong it needs the blues to chronicle its course.

A Chicago premiere at Raven Theater, this 135-minute spellbinder is delivered like a driving dream by a terrific four-character cast, marvelously aided and abetted by Wardell Julius Clark and music director Ricky Harris.

Living in a cul-de-sac next to Beale Street, Toulou (the wonderful Martasia Jones) is a young, aspiring blues singer who does laundry and hopes hard. Thinking she’s found a kindred talent, Toulou has fallen hard for a womanizing rambler curiously named Ace of Spades (charismatic Matthew James Elam). Always “in the wind” from one gig to the next lady, this smiling gigolo anticipates fame and recordings in Chicago. Despite surviving a tragic marriage, Ace is a confident “lucky nickel” happy to be unfettered and fancy free. But his ardor for Toulou makes him think of settling down.


Opposing forces act on these troubled lovers. The two other characters are each other’s poison. Descending on her shanty shack, Toulou’s brother Jib (Christopher Wayland Jones, smooth and sly) is a Mississippi preacher hoping to assemble a Tennessee congregation. He cites Scripture at the top of his lungs as this confessed horndog pretends to protect Toulou from her charmer Ace.

Distrusting this holy-rolling hypocrite and representing the title’s pagan powers, Candylady (magnificent Shariba Rivers) is a conjure-woman who’s worked her way through five husbands, one of them lynched. Her white magic involves “root work,” mojo bags, and hexes, spell-casting potions buried beneath a cabin. Toulou beseeches her for a love philter to bind her to wandering Ace. The sorceress’ supernatural solicitation, however, can backfire. Likewise Toulou’s pregnancy. Love can turn lethal, desires dangerous.

Katori Hall (who would later write The Mountaintop about Martin Luther King’s last night on earth) works her own bewitchment, setting in motion the unintended consequences of a blessing that can become a curse. A poisoned flask wreaks its havoc as no good enchantment goes unpunished. Before Hoodoo Love ends it confronts us with a cruelty so casual it demands a punishment it never receives. No happy endings here, just raw passions set to burning ballads.

Hall excels at pungent, period-right dialogue that takes us deep into the hard times and the harder hopes of five very flawed souls. Elam, Rivers, and both Joneses are on top of both the folkloric exoticism of their complex characters and the immediacy of their hurt and hunger.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Hoodoo Love
Raven Theatre Company’s Schwartz Stage, 6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3; Mon at 7:30 (Nov. 25 only); dark Nov. 28
ends on December 15, 2019 EXTENDED to December 22, 2019
for tickets, call 773.338.2177 or visit Raven Theatre

for more, visit Theatre in Chicago

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