Angela Lewis and Kevin Mambo
in Hoodoo Love
(© Jaisen Crockett)
Angela Lewis and Kevin Mambo
in Hoodoo Love
(© Jaisen Crockett)
The characters in Katori Hall's Hoodoo Love sing the blues -- quite literally. Blues music suffuses the play, which mixes African-American folk magic with a brutal story of abuse and frustrated ambitions. There are many aspects of both script and production -- now being presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre, under the direction of Lucie Tiberghien -- that are praiseworthy, but the show finishes on an awkward note.

Hoodoo Love tells the story of Toulou (Angela Lewis), a young African-American woman in depression-era Memphis. She dreams of singing the blues, but her ambitions are laughed at by her lover, a rambling blues musician called Ace of Spades (Kevin Mambo). He frequently leaves her behind, and talks of other women that he takes up with in other cities. Desperate to have his love for herself, she lays down a hex on him with the assistance of her neighbor, Candy Lady (Marjorie Johnson), a former slave and practitioner of Hoodoo (a form of African-American folk magic). However, while Toulou occasionally gets what she asks for, she doesn't always get what she wants, especially with her brother Jib (Keith Davis) complicating matters.

All of Hall's characters have a dark side to them. The women's questionable ethics of making someone fall in love with them are set side by side with the men's actions which include inconstancy, rape, and incest. The characters sometimes genuinely connect, but more often they are at odds with one another. It's also clear that magic is not a good solution, but rather can cause many more problems -- some of them irreversible.

The playwright uses healthy doses of humor to offset the more tragic elements of the story. The characters banter back and forth in friendly and not-so-friendly exchanges. As Jib, a preacher, critiques Candy Lady's pagan practices, she humorously retorts, "You want salvation, go to church. You want something done, come to me."

Lewis has a strong presence, and possesses a soulful singing voice that makes you think that Toulou could actually make it as a blues singer if given the proper chance. Mambo also shines in his blues numbers, and endows his performance with the proper blend of amiability and steeliness. The two also have a nice chemistry together.

Johnson has an intense and knowing stare, and hilariously plays Candy Lady's saucier side. However, she also has a tendency to indicate her character's emotions and intentions in too broad a manner. Davis is saddled with the most unlikable -- as well as the most two-dimensional -- character in the play, and isn't able to overcome these challenges to make his performance anything more than adequate.

Towards the beginning of the second act, Candy Lady gives Toulou a potion that will obviously figure largely in the play's resolution. However, when one of the characters finally ingests it, the tone of the scene comes across as overly melodramatic. To make matters worse, the scene which follows (and concludes the play) shifts the action forward in time a little without an adequate resolution to what just preceded it. This ending feels tacked on, rather than a natural or inevitable outcome.