Dallas — In 2002 the median family income in Memphis, Tenn., was 57.3K. To qualify for low income housing, a family of three could not earn more than $15.4K annually which is $322 per week. The family in Katori Hall’s play, Hurt Village, was forced to leave their home because the projects were being razed to accommodate a new development which would be called Uptown. Because the family was on the “Hope List,” they assumed they would move into the nearby suburb. This hope was pierced by a notification to the family’s matriarch, Big Mama (Monique Ridge-Williams) that she earned $387 too much money the last year. That is $7.44 per week. As a result, they were removed from the Hope List which meant by the end of the week, they would have no place to go once they vacated the premises.
This is called displacement due to gentrification and it is happening in most urban centers including Dallas, Texas. For this reason, Soul Rep Theatre Company included Hall’s play in their current season which appears onstage at the South Dallas Cultural Center, located in the heart of gentrification central—the Fair Park area. Jemal McNeil’s comfort with directing this piece comes partly from his familiarity with the effects of displacement on families.
Displaced in Hurt Village will be Big Mama, her great-grandchild thirteen-year-old Cookie (Sharvetta Clay-Harris), and Cookie’s mother, Crank (Anyika McMillan-Herod), whose real name we do not know. Crank was only thirteen when she delivered Cookie. Buggy (J.R. Bradford), Cookie’s father, is Big Mama’s grandson.
Katori Hall is not the first playwright to bring the story of gentrification to the stage. She falls in line behind August Wilson’s Two Trains Running which is also set in Memphis, and Ronel Remy’s This Place/Displaced. Bruce Norris gave a nod to Lorraine Hansberry with Clybourne Park. Sideways Fences by Oscar Arguello has not gone unnoticed. What Hall brings is an unflinching reveal of the rawness of despair, hence the language of the play. The way these characters talk is the communicative style of that particular village. For all of their cutting bluster, overlapping and confusing relationships, they love each other in their own ways.
Outside, Ebony (Christian Riley) and Skillet (Jacobie Thornton) break into a hip-hopnitized version of the dozens. Drug king Tony C (Douglas Carter) saunters by, eying Cookie as ripe for the taking. One of Cookie’s rhymes describes their street as the Million Dollar Track because it is the place one can buy crack (cocaine), smack (heroin), dro (marijuana) and also be killed in the process.
Colbert and Bradford as Cornbread and Buggy, succeed in making the implausible believable—maintaining a friendship that is complicated by women shared. Riley and Thornton show the awkwardness of young boys draped with the pretension required to survive in a world of broken men.
Through her portrayal of Big Mama, Ridge-Williams demonstrates her understanding that desperation need not be the destroyer of strength. Her scene in the office of the housing authority was wonderfully powerful. M. Scott Tatum’s lighting design for that scene set the tone.
Little girls grow up quickly in places like Hurt Village. Harris’ blend of thorny naïveté stands as a counterweight to Ridge-Williams’ rooted determination. McMillan-Herod avoids the stereotypical ants-on-my-skin portrayal of a crack addict. Her physicality demonstrates Crank’s discomfort and lands somewhere between stereotype and unrealistic.
Adding to the complication is Toyia with her spice, humor and catalytic energy. Hampton gives her so many colors, fashioning her into that girl everybody knew growing up who could be your boo and make you want to strangle her at the same time.
The drug dealer was not menacing and he should have been. The costumes overall were appropriate to the characters but Tony C.’s costume leaned into the comical, which affected the audience’s impression of the character.
During a recent interview with Jemal McNeil, he spoke of African drumming and its cultural importance to the village concept. “Even though we are thousands of miles from Africa, we still have those drums inside us, moving us. When we hear them, we respond. It is spiritual.” Leo Hassan underscores part of the play with drumming. It needs no explanation, coming in and out unobtrusively.
This is a good production. Our narrator, Cookie, closes the play, bringing us through her childhood and into the present. Every major species in the animal kingdom expends great energy in finding the right place to nest because the quality of that nesting ground determines the survivability of the species—the children. These tiny villages should not be invisible. Even if their lives seem very different, they can be understood.