Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 21
Hattiloo Theatre, 656 Marshall
Tickets are $10-$25
"Hurt Village," now running at the Hattiloo Theatre, might seem a too-obvious or even clichéd title for a play set in a Memphis housing project where life's miseries — both internal and external — have left the community wounded and lost.
But in this case, Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall, a former journalist who also penned Broadway's "The Mountaintop," wasn't straining for a metaphor. The city handed it to her.
Hurt Village was an all-too-real example of public housing's ills in North Memphis a decade ago. It's the same complex that football player Michael Oher escaped in the movie "The Blind Side." As Hall's characters point out, it was indeed located near a street called Auction, with all its connotations to slavery intact. What other race started out in this country on an auction block or, in modern times, in a housing project on a block of Auction where souls were being sold every day?
Hall found a neighborhood that perfectly sets its own scene, not unlike Tennessee Williams sending Blanche DuBois down a real New Orleans avenue called Elysian Fields (heaven, to the Greeks) via a real streetcar named Desire.
Hurt Village eventually did come to be associated with hurt, or, at least, things that cause hurt: poverty, illiteracy, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, rape, welfare dependency and gentrification. That may seem like a lot to touch on in just one play. But Hall's work isn't concerned with simplification.
"Hurt Village" is about complications, the kind that make solutions and alternatives difficult for poor African-Americans.
The Memphis debut of "Hurt Village" at Hattiloo is a beautifully acted, in-your-face production directed by the company's founder, Ekundayo Bandele. It comes at a time when both Democrats and Republicans want to convince America that they can solve poverty. One side says spread the wealth; another says pull up the bootstraps.
Yet, the residents of Hurt Village defy viewers to judge, redeem or sympathize with them. They are hardened survivalists, gaming the system that made them.
I want to believe that this cast of Memphians captures the Southern swagger more authentically than the off-Broadway cast earlier this year. They've certainly done a terrific job bringing home this gritty slice of urban life.
Hall gives each character just enough room to grow, but not quite enough room to break free.
Big Mama, a hardworking matriarch played by Angela Wynn, earns slightly too much at her custodial job at the V.A. to qualify for Section 8 housing. In a powerful monologue, she begs the unseen government caseworker to overlook her extra income.
Her grandson, Buggy (forcefully played by Emmanuel McKinney), is an Iraq War veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. When the sinister local drug lord (the actor J.S.) offers him a job, it revives a haunting childhood memory.
His 13-year-old daughter, Cookie, has a gift for language, but her prospects are dim. Actress Jeanika Taylor beautifully captures the precocious bravery of the girl whose illiterate mother, played by Mary Pruitt, mistakes intelligence for sass.
Meanwhile, Jessica "Jai" Johnson's Toyia and Delvyn Brown's brooding Cornbread represent a dysfunctional couple whose unprotected sexual dalliances only make the new lives they create seem doomed from the beginning.
Actors James Cook and Jose C. Joiner round out the cast as damaged young people locked in the cycle of hurt-or-be-hurt.
"Hurt Village" is one of several plays Hall has set in her hometown. "The Mountaintop," running later this season, takes place in the Lorraine Motel on the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Her play "Hoodoo Love" is about a Memphis blues singer, and "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning" is a love story set in a local beauty shop during the final days of World War II.
But "Hurt Village" may be the one that speaks most to Memphis — the language is sharp, poetic, vernacular and frequently funny. And Hattiloo gets the show as close to perfect as it's ever going to get.