By Ian Rigg
The Chicago theatre scene is a kind of witchcraft. Throughout the Windy City, people searching for salvation from the everyday go to perform rituals. Just follow these steps: take actors at the bleeding edge of authenticity and heightened showmanship, gather them in an intimate space with a sharp director, crafty set design, evocative lighting design: add an audience, and stop their hearts dead. That’s just what Raven Theatre has done with Hoodoo Love.
Katori Hall’s modern classic is a richly-layered tour-de-force of fantastical turns and historical pains on par with any Tenessee Williams work. The masterfully conjured play tells the tale of Toulou, an aspiring blues singer in dried-up, Depression-era Memphis. She herself lies under the lovelorn spell of the charming Ace of Spades, a rail-riding rapscallion who never stays in one bed for long. As the train carries him in and out of her life and her estranged preacher brother Jib waltzes into the portrait, tension and desire both build to a fever pitch. But as Toulou turns to her Hoodoo practicing neighbor Candylady and the portending howl of a steam train perpetually calls to fortunes far away, there may be greater forces than love at play.
Wardell Julius Clark directs a sincere and spellbinding show that ingeniously illuminates the textures of the text. The riveting and real acting is gripping even at the surface level. But when Clark dives into the metaphors and bounces the characters off one another it becomes clear that each is a foil to each of the others as they gamble with the burgeoning music industry or with even more infernal forces. The brilliantly done show begs the question: under the oppression of poverty and passion, do we have the power to influence our own fates, or are the cards already marked? With Clark himself at least, the answer is clear: this director’s deck is absolutely stacked, and he conjures spells with an artistic team of unholy talents.
Sydney Lynne Thomas’ carefully crafted Depression era shacks and twisted railroad tracks of fate create an impressionistic verisimilitude — and the phenomenal trick lurking within for the play’s explosive climax should not be spoiled, only witnessed.
The set is perfectly enhanced by Sim Carpetner’s emotional lighting design of beating sepia sun, sensitive blues and chilling reds, whose excellent thunderstorm lends an erotic and foreboding air to the opening love scene that sets the tone for the web to come.
Alexis Chaney creats period accurate, deceptively simple costumes that tell as much about the characters as the brilliant actors portraying them.
Rachel Flesher’s realistic and visceral intimacy and violence design is an at turns tender and mortifying testament to the vital necessity of her field.
One of show’s many other compelling scenes comes courtesy of Clark, who choreographed Candylady guiding Toulou through Hoodoo. It’s one of the moments worth the price of admission alone. That said, Intimacy and Violence Choreographers Daniel C. Brown, Kyra Jones and Jyreika J. Evelyn Guest all do stunning work.
Carnal movement is matched by spirit-filled music just as yearning and visceral, with the masterfully mixed sound design of Jeffrey Levin and music direction of The Ricky Harris.
With the recipe laid out by the artistic team, it comes down to the performers to complete the ritual, and the Jeff Committee would be wise to recognize and award these 4 powerhouse performers.
Christopher Wayland Jones delivers a keen and blood-curdlingly crafted performance as Jib, making divinely deliberate choices to play a con-man preacher whose every note rings false and hollow, save the dark and possessive undercurrent barely hiding beneath his oily, holier-than-thou surface.
Shariba Rivers is a total triumph as Candylady. The kind of actor who could make the phonebook riveting, Rivers tears into the many layers of Toulou’s enigmatic neighbor, peeling back wit, will, and a deep sorrow, bringing to life a storied witch as much resigned to fate as her ability to alter it. She earns the show’s biggest laughs, and with clever choices that imply she could be a con artist just better at her job than Jib, or an actual simple-living sorceress, there’s no doubt Shariba Rivers has powers. “You want salvation, go to church. You want something done, come to me.”
Our amazing Ace of Spades, Matthew James Elam, puts the lust in wanderlust, channeling a cavalier charm as the bluesman born for the boxcar. But with such a well-written character in hand, this master actor could never be one-note: Elam lands every level and nuance needed for the tragic troubadour, and his incredibly cultured voice just begs to be put on wax.
But in this battle of wills, the show absolutely belongs to the magnificent Martasia Jones. The role demands much of an actor, and she is the only choice for the challenge: Jones nails every rhythm the show demands. Intimate and titanic, she seamlessly shifts from afterglow affection, seething resentment, forlorn yearning, flirtatious charm, clandestine scheming, shellshocked acceptance, heartrending grief, and so many other malignant melodies. She’s simply a wonder to watch as she struggles to determine her own destiny.
For what is Hoodoo? Just like music, religion, or love, it’s just a dance with destiny. Whether or not you catch that train, you will always reach your destination.
Hoodoo Love plays now through December 22 at Raven Theater, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago. For tickets and more information, click here.