Monday, February 13, 2012

"Hurt Village" (NYC)

Hurt Village by Katori Hall. Directed by Patricia McGregor. Produced by Signature Theatre.

Ok, I know I am posting them on the same day, but I saw this show and Bob several weeks apart (2 to be exact I think).

And all I can say is YES! This!

This show is everything I thought “Bob” was not. And it was so much more.

I don’t even know where to begin really. There is so much to talk about – the play itself, the writing, the story, the acting, the audience. I mean, seriously, wow!

I guess I need to just dive in somewhere.

I guess I want to start with this – good plays stick with you for a long time. Excellent plays change the way you think, or remind you why it is you think something you already think. Hurt Village is an excellent play.

There are several things to unpack even from that sentence. The obvious – the show was blocked for the space it was in (it’s an alley or runway space, audience on two sides – and I have seen plenty in similar space which was not blocked for the space…), the actors had good control of their voices, the set was spot on, the lights were subtle and magical…

But more than that – let’s start here: Last year, I saw “Good People” on Broadway. I remember thinking then how much I enjoyed the story of it, and how surprised I was to see it on Broadway. The thing I remember, to this day, taking away from it is that how difficult it is to get out of the poverty cycle once you are in it. And how much help you need to do so. Though, ultimately, “Good People” is about the choices you make to either get out or help someone get out.

Hurt Village is so much more than that. Hurt Village is about the dream of getting out, even when your back is to the wall and there may not be a way out. It’s about jumping that one last time to get out of the jar, regardless of how many times you have hit your head in the process. And it’s about the community how a community can both help and alternatively hurt you. It’s about the circumstances that make you who you are, what you have to overcome, and shape what you become.

I teach in Harlem 7th graders on Saturday mornings, about a 15 min walk from where I live actually, and those kids both amaze me, and break my heart every Saturday. I want so badly to help them.

And that’s what amazed me about the characters in Hurt Village. They pulled from me that exact same feeling. In the same way that Lanford wrote about the lost people of his world, the druggies, homeless, prostitutes etc with such compassion and realness, so too does Katori Hall. The nine characters in the show carrying with them the difficult balance of the grace of realism with the arc of a beautifully written story. And the language – the language was alive and fluid in the lips of the actors, every moment leading into the next, every moment present and dynamic – pulling the audience into the story, until they became part of the story. Because we are, in fact, part of that story – every one of us.

The audience the night that I went was not a quiet “good” audience. On the contrary, they were, what I think, is the perfect theatre audience – so engaged they respond to what’s happening viscerally the moment it happens. Some of them talked back from the audience to the actors, most sang, all laughed and gasped and… And even better, the actors recognized us – acknowledging that we were all part of the same experience – the experience of this show, on this night, in this room, with this group of people, thereby bringing everyone into the fold of the story. The cast was wonderful all the way around, though I must say that from her very first moment on stage Joaquina Kalukango captivate and responded the audience – her opening monologue used as direct audience contact. For a character who spends a good deal of time in the play in trouble for back talk, she spends a lot of time talking back to the audience. And the welcome back BBQ scene, not only did it feel like it was happening for the first time, that they were making up what they were saying as they spoke, but also it felt like, at any moment, they were going to give us a beer and a hot dog.

This feeling of shared community was especially powerful in light of the show itself, or rather, in light of the story it tells – the story of a community dying and the struggle of its inhabitants. The feeling of the audience as part of the story reminding us that the play is more than a play - that this is happening to real people – and that in so many ways it is bigger that they are; the fight older than they are – and they only thing to do is to try to move forward – try to remind people that the fight isn’t over and was begun long before we were alive.

And for me? This show reminded me of what I believe theatre is and can be. I believe theatre can change the world; I believe it can show us who we are; I believe it does that through its stories; I believe that if you tell a powerful enough story – and if you tell it well enough - people will listen. Hurt Village used both realism and theatricality. I believed the characters could exist – and yet, I never forgot where we were – there was no fourth wall – and plenty of ways and times to acknowledge the audience as a character in the story as well. I want theatre that is theatrical AND real. I want theatre that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while paradoxically exploring life or death stakes. Theatre that demands to be seen by everyone, and reaches out and catches you at your core, in your heart and soul, not just your brain. I know that there are many other ways to do this, I have seen it, but Hurt Village is one of the finest examples of it that I have seen in a long time.

Also, after the show was over, they had cake in the lobby (I'm really not sure why). And really, who doesn't love cake?

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