Malika Oyetimein’s ‘Hoodoo Love’ Places the Story in the Audience’s Laps

The director’s take on a story of black resilience strategically engages with white audiences.

Valerie Curtis-Newton, artistic director of The Hansberry Project, and director Malika Oyetimein sat down and discussed Hoodoo Love after a recent performance. They covered many topics, including making theater for black communities while simultaneously being attentive to majority-white Seattle audiences in a strategic, adaptive way.

One way Oyetimein, in collaboration with set designer Margaret Toomey, deliberately engages with white audience members in Hoodoo Love is through their proximity to the stage, placing them on the edge of the inside of the character’s rooms. “I didn’t want an audience of white people to experience it from a distance,” Oyetimein said. “I wanted to set the story in your laps, I wanted to make you feel it and to make the audience be inside of the shack—not removed. I’m sick of people experiencing black pain and suffering from a distance.”

Oyetimein’s work as a director focuses on the experiences of black folks, specifically black women in America. Seattle audiences may recently have seen it in Barbecue at the Intiman and Milk Like Sugar at ArtsWest. She notes that all the shows she has directed feature black female leads and return to themes of resilience. “Black women are the definition of resilience,” Oyetimein says in the program. Her brilliant new production of Hoodoo Love solidifies this theme with more than a little help from the superb acting of Porscha Shaw and Eva Abram, as well as the support of The Hansberry Project, who co-produced the show with Sound Theatre Company.

Hoodoo Love is set in 1930s Memphis, yet the themes that playwright Katori Hall touches on are “timeless,” Oyetimein said. The two working-class black women the play centers on are Toulou (Shaw), an aspiring blues musician, and CandyLady (Abram), a hoodoo magic practitioner and mother figure. “You want salvation, go to church. You want something done, come to me,” CandyLady says near the beginning of the show, referencing her trade in African-American folk spirituality and healing traditions that have the potential to influence and twist the fortunes of their practitioners. Toulou falls in love with the Ace of Spades (André G. Brown), a smooth-talking blues singer who weaves in and out of her life. Ace’s sustained absence in Toulou’s life is filled by the terrifying presence of her abusive, Bible-thumping brother Jib (Corey Spruill). The convolution of these circumstances pushes Toulou to consult CandyLady for her services.

Shaw’s and Abram’s characters live deeply inside their bodies. Their facial expressions and body language are well crafted, flawlessly riding the waves of emotion they experience, due both to Hall’s writing and Oyetimein’s attention to detail. Hall develops her characters to be multifaceted, their intentions and desires imperfect and genuine. In one particularly intense scene, we see Toulou’s grief carried in her shoulders and eyes as she sits downstage center, quite close to the audience, and plays a song about a lover she has named Misery. Her expression is raw. She weeps as she sings, releasing and responding to her trauma. This moment of intensity between performer and audience is thick with feeling. Oyetimein and Curtis-Newton have been deeply attentive to “black bodies in space in relationship to white bodies in the audience,” Curtis-Newton says. How will the audience respond? Hoodoo Love, Sound Theatre Company, Center Theatre, $15–$25. Ages 16 and up. Ends July 30.