Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nicholas Christopher,
Tonya Pinkins, Saycon Sengbloh,
Joaquina Kalukango and Corey Hawkins
in Hurt Village
(© Joan Marcus)
Marsha Stephanie Blake, Nicholas Christopher,
Tonya Pinkins, Saycon Sengbloh,
Joaquina Kalukango and Corey Hawkins
in Hurt Village
(© Joan Marcus)
As August Wilson did by repeatedly focusing on his home town of Pittsburgh, Katori Hall once again hones in on her birthplace, Memphis, in Hurt Village, her thoroughly sensational -- in a couple senses of the word -- drama just opening at the Signature Theatre's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater.

To be more specific, she looks with fierce concentration on a downtrodden neighborhood: the ironically named Hurt Village, built for whites in the 1950s that over the intervening years transformed into a neglected black community rife with drugs and other painful manifestations of social unrest.

With instant attention-getting prowess, Hall introduces 13-year-old Cookie (the spunky Joaquina Kalukango) banging on a dangerous electrical box and repeating "Dis be de war!" as the start of a joyous, though provocative rap. It's the paradoxically wised-up yet naïve Cookie through whose eyes the hope-deprived, early 21st-century Hurt Village lives are observed in what becomes an unflinching slice-of-life work.

Hall tells her tale in chapters the titles of which are projected on David Gallo's set and include "The Past is Prologue," "The Last Shipment," "The Door of No Return" and a few of the sort not generally quoted in family publications. Be assured there's frequent use of the n-word and forms of the f-word.

As Hall's vignettes march inexorably by, Cookie shows her supposedly reformed crackhead mother Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake), hard-headed grandmother Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins), returning soldier father Buggy (Corey Hawkins), marauding drug dealer Tony C (Ron Cephas Jones), local loose-moraled frenemy Toyia (Saycon Sengbloh), drug-cooking smalltime entrepreneur Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher), slow-witted friend Skillet (Lloyd Watts), and fast-witted friend Ebony (Charlie Hudson, III).

Although Hurt Village is rapidly-maturing Cookie's story -- and perhaps to some extent Hall's -- every character has his or her moment(s) in which to enact personal ignominies and rare victories.

For example, Big Mama is on a list for better housing, but is dropped from it by making $387 over the income limit. In an action following Hall's depiction of Big Mama's multiple efforts to keep her family in line and on track, the woman fights the decision in a heartbreaking monologue where she's supposedly addressing the chief decision maker.

Under direction by Patricia McGregor as fierce as Hall's writing, the cast makes a strong bid for a best-ensemble prize, as every actor vivifies each harrowing moment. And even if there isn't much news in Hurt Village, the continuing urban crises it recounts -- as if in an indicting documentary -- is precisely what makes the play obligatory viewing.