To prevent men from taking credit for ideas that were not their own because #menaretrash, women on President Obama’s staff used a method called “amplification.” Whenever a woman would make a point, other women would repeat it, which turned the focus back to the idea’s author and forced the men to acknowledge their contributions. In the right hands, amplification can be an effective form of activism and resistance, and Sound Theatre Company’s 2017 season, called “AMPLIFY! Raising Women’s Voices,” is pretty upfront about its intentions.
“I have been looking to dedicate the 2017 [season] to plays by women for sometime now,” says artistic director Teresa Thuman in the Seattle Times, “and the current events have only affirmed that this was the right direction for our next season.”
Sound Theatre Company’s current production of Katori Hall's Hoodoo Love, directed by Malika Oyetimein, takes amplification an intersectional step further. In partnership with The Hansberry Project, a production company invested in promoting black theater artists and rich and diverse black narratives, they've created a thunderous play about black magic, black pain, and black love that amplifies the voices of Black women.
The play begins in Memphis, Tennessee, during the Great Depression. Toulou is an aspiring blues singer in love with Ace, a wayfaring bluesman with a wandering eye. Desperate to secure his love and loyalty, Toulou engages the help of a hoodoo conjurer named Candylady, who helps Toulou cast a spell to make Ace fall in love with her. Just as the magic begins to take root, the arrival of Toulou's estranged and born again Christian brother, Jib, threatens to destroy all of her dreams.
The set design by Margaret Toomey is a series of vulnerable textures: spindly trees cast thin shadows, two rickety houses rise just off the ground with walls open to the outside, and both abodes are chock full of small, detailed props.
Scene transitions often happen in blackouts, with little to no light/sound elements to keep the audience company, an atypical choice but one that works. In the darkness and silence of the transition, the audience is offered the space to consider the event of the scene prior, to sink a little further into the action. In other plays tense with drama, I’ve seen directors rush through transitions, afraid that the energy will drop if lights and sound don’t propel us forward. What these transitions do is tell us, “It’s ok to be invested. Trust us.” So we do. Characters prowl and stalk along the boundaries of the playing space, threatening to spill into our laps. I sat in the front row and the staging often brought the actors within inches of my feet.
The proximity to the action was startling, but instead of recoiling, I leaned further in. In the hands of the assured and loving direction of Oyetimein, each character is rendered in layered complexity, and the astoundingly skilled ensemble perfectly executes her vision, even in the most painful moments. While three of the four characters commit reprehensible actions, Oyetimein reminds us that each one of these characters is the product of the philosophies they've been using to survive.
But the music! And the singing! THE MUSIC AND THE SINGING. When the ensemble sang, it felt like I was witnessing something scary, powerful, and deep. Though I could feel the power of their collective singing, I could also tell there was some magic at work outside my comprehension.
Though Hoodoo Love was published 10 years ago, Sound Theatre and The Hansberry Project’s production of the play is its Seattle premiere.
My research unearthed early production reviews, by white critics, accusing Katori Hall of writing black stereotypes and decrying the play's heavy subjects as shock value and unnecessary. To briefly summarize their criticism, Hoodoo Love was a good effort for a new playwright, but the world of the play and the characters were “somewhat two dimensional.” Literally, the early reviews were white people saying the characters lacked depth or substance. I was astounded. What I had seen was full, moving, and blooded with real people, a celebration of Black resilience running through it. And then it hit me. Hall has written a play about Black resilience that has nothing to do with white people, and perhaps those early critics didn’t understand that. Because it’s not about them. White people will do anything they can to make something about them, and if it’s obviously not, they will just as easily dismiss it as less than.
This collaboration between Sound Theatre, a theatre company devoting it’s season to ally activism, and The Hansberry Project, a company invested in integral black narratives, resulted in the deepest and most moving production I’ve seen all year, and I am so thankful for it, even though it has nothing to do with me, a non-Black person.
So see this play, ok? But if you’re a white person who has trouble connecting with some elements of this play, let it go. Those elements probably aren’t for you. If you got mad at that sentence, you’re missing the point.