It’s an odd coincidence that the two excellent plays about contemporary African-American families to arrive so far this season—both by African-American female playwrights—both liken their characters to insects under inspection.
In Stick Fly, Lydia R. Diamond’s tough but warm examination of race and class among a wealthy black family at its summer house on Martha’s Vineyard, which came and went too quickly at Broadway’s Cort Theatre this winter, the metaphor was embodied by bugs that the grad-student girlfriend of one of the family’s sons glued to sticks to study. As an entomologist, and as a less-wealthy house guest, this character was trying to understand something she was not a part of.
In Katori Hall’s raw and crackling new Hurt Village, about a struggling black family living in the North Memphis housing project of that name during the later Bush years, as the crime- and drug-ravaged complex is about to be torn down, the play’s symbolic critters are fleas. Bright, ambitious, 13-year-old Cookie (the fantastic, show-stealing Joaquina Kalukango) has been enrolled in a good school in a wealthier part of town, and one of her first homework assignments is a science project. Put a group of fleas in a lidded jar and eventually they’ll stop trying to jump out. Remove the lid, she believes, and the fleas still won’t bother jumping; they’ve been trained to think they can’t possibly escape. But her hypothesis doesn’t quite bear out. Of the nine fleas—and there are nine characters in the play—one does escape, and the sweet, slow-talking, young gangbanger Skillet (Lloyd Watts) suggests that that departed flea—the one determined enough, hard-headed enough, desperate enough, to get out—is the exception that proves the rule. The question is whether Cookie, or anyone else in her extended clan, will be able to do the same.
Ms. Hall announced her presence as a playwright this fall, when her overpraised and overripe The Mountaintop, a fantasia on Martin Luther King’s final night in Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, opened on Broadway after an award-winning run in London. The play attracted a marquee-name cast—Samuel L. Jackson as King and a heavily over-caffeinated Angela Bassett as Camae, the maid he confides in—that couldn’t mask its ham-handed history lesson. But with Hurt Village, which opened Monday at the Pershing Square Signature Center—the giant and gorgeous new off-Broadway theater complex on the far west end of 42nd Street that’s somewhat confusingly named for a hedge fund that’s named for a plaza on the east end of 42nd Street—Ms. Hall proves herself to be not just a high-profile young playwright but also a high-talent one.
Hurt Village is a haunting portrait of a family with almost nothing—little money, few hopes, no delusions, and no real way out of its situation. Like the groundbreaking HBO series The Wire, Ms. Hall’s play presents an impoverished world in which gun play and rape are facts of life, trying to play by the rules rarely works out, and drug dealing can seem the only viable career option.
Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins), Cookie’s great-grandmother, is the matriarch, scraping by with a job as an orderly at a VA hospital and dreams of the subsidized suburban housing they’ll move to in two weeks, when Hurt Village is leveled for redevelopment. They live with Cookie’s mother, Crank (Marsha Stephanie Blake), an unemployed and barely educated former drug addict who wants to earn a cosmetology license. And there are the other neighborhood characters, including Crank’s friend Toyia (a funny, outrageous Saycon Sengbloh) and her boyfriend, Cornbread (Nicholas Christopher), who works for FedEx, deals drugs on the side, and treats Cookie like she is his daughter; and Tony C (Ron Cephas Jones), the smooth, scary drug lord who runs the neighborhood and lives in the suburbs. “I sell that white to these niggahs so my lil’ boy won’t ever have to play on a playground got mo’ crack vials than blades of grass,” he tells Cookie. “If I gotsta kill a couple niggahs who was on they way out anyway, so be it. It’s for the greater good.”
And there’s Buggy (Corey Hawkins), Cookie’s father, who arrives home at the start of the play after 10 years in the Army, hailed as a hero—he was clearly the previous hope to be the flea that gets away—but eventually revealed to have been dishonorably discharged and suffering from PTSD.
Directed by Patricia McGregor on an artfully junk-strewn set designed by David Gallo, Hurt Village vividly displays the tenuousness of these lives, where a boy is murdered to make a point, where Buggy, who spent 10 years traveling the world, can’t find a way to earn money except by selling drugs, and where, in the play’s most wrenching scene, Big Mama must get down on her knees and beg to be permitted to stay in the subsidized-housing program, because the government has determined that she earns $387 too much from her menial job to remain eligible. Cookie, who hopes to be a rapper, or else a flight attendant, stays strong, but Crank, her mother, gets back on drugs, and Buggy, her father, decides he must leave again, that even with a daughter he admires, there’s not enough for him in Memphis.