Ubuntu's 'Hurt Village' is Set in Memphis, but is Really About Oakland

Katori Hall’s Hurt Village—in a wild, take-it-to-the limit Ubuntu Theater Project production staged at a crumbling, old Baptist church in Oakland -- litters the stage with false prophets. You want to warn the play’s 13-year-old, rap-obsessed heroine, Cookie, to run. But the question is to where. Every possibility in front of her is poisoned with the devil’s truth: knowledge and power, but at the cost of one’s soul.

Hall’s vision is relentless and harrowing. Cookie’s home, the Memphis housing project “Hurt Village,” is more of a state of mind than an actual place. That it is scheduled to be demolished and all the residents relocated -- as actually happened to the real Hurt Village over the course of three years starting in 2000 -- only adds to its mythic allure. Here, on the cusp of radical social change, anything can happen, and the brilliant Cookie feels it all.

The play is rich in incident and character. There’s the matriarch Big Mama, Cookie’s great-grandmother, a toxic mix of goodness and fatalism; there's Cookie's mother, Crank, a recovered crack-addict, desperate to go to cosmetology school so that she can set up her own salon; and then there's Cookie's father, Buggy, a returning Iraq war veteran, who's kind and gentle and elusive. And that’s just the beginning of the village, whose population includes a drug dealing Fed-Ex driver, a feminist stripper, and a drug kingpin with a penchant for philosophical asides and casual sadism.

So it's appropriate that the play opens with Cookie taking on the role of village troubadour, the all-seeing artist -- “I spin ghetto tales that’ll make you weep,” she declares in a bracing entrance that matches the bravado of the slickest rappers. It’s clear that Cookie's rhyme is provisional, that she’s testing it out, and that it’s not a finished product. The effect is stunning, though -- a complex but plain depiction of a child with real artistic instincts, but, not as yet an artist, and, most importantly, not even close to possessing a full adult consciousness. Cookie's tales exceed her understanding.

Chaz Shermil is astounding as Cookie and it’s her ability to play these in-between, transitional states that gives the young actress's performance an uncanny realism. I have no idea whether Shermil is an uncommonly poised teenager or an adult with uncommon abilities. Whatever the case, she manages to convey incompleteness in riveting detail. It’s not just great acting, but a realization of the play’s deepest concerns.

In one of the best scenes of the evening, two neighborhood boys play the dozens and Cookie jumps in and blows them away. It's not that they're bad, it's that she's just that good: sharp, intelligent, and whippet quick. Everyone can feel it. From her family and her mother's married lover, to the local drug king pin and the boys she humiliates. In a world of brutal sexual exchange, Cookie is an object of fascination because of her mind. And the question becomes not only what will become of her, but also how do you write about her? Where does she belong in a play like Hurt Village?

The playwright has clearly devoured the western literary canon and its merging with African-American experience. The drama possesses touches of the melodrama of Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun, the brutal social realism of Richard Wright, James Baldwin’s belief in the exceptional, and the crazed revenge fantasies of early 1970’s Blaxploitation films. And yet there’s something distant in Hall's approach, as if she sees the limits of storytelling even as she’s telling the story.

And this is what makes Hurt Village so strange and affecting: Cookie, the star of the show, is almost unrepresentable. And for large parts of the play, the character drifts on the periphery, an afterthought to the real drama. In almost successive scenes, both Cookie's great-grandmother and mother get on their knees and beg. She barely understands how close her father is to going back to war; only this time the battlefield is right outside her door. Lives implode around her, a neighborhood teen dies, and yet none of this registers with her in quite the way we might think.

Cookie is free of the trap of history and conventions. Everything is new to her. So she watches, while others preach. We know that everyone in her village is playing a well-worn role, but she doesn't. So almost everything that’s said to her she treats with extreme consideration. Cookie listens, always trying to jibe what she’s told with what she knows. One might say that this character is continually moving from belief to disenchantment.

The Ubuntu production under Nataki Garret’s direction catches the central mystery of Cookie and casts a spell that’s hard to shake. You sit in the beautiful loft of the elegant, rundown Grace Temple Church and you look up to the sky and feel the world’s embrace. And then you watch what happens in this play and that embrace is fractured. Like Cookie, we, too, become disenchanted. No story can account for such vicious, social failures, especially when the prophets of the village, good and bad, are all false.

This is the last production of Ubuntu's "Season of Displacement," and it takes place in a Baptist church in one of the few corners of Oakland not quite yet touched by gentrification. We're watching a show about Memphis and the destruction of a community where many, many people suffered. In Oakland, many, many people are suffering today. "These project walls will crumble to the ground, and the tears and bloodshed will soon be forgotten," Cookie tells us at the end of the play. Has she become a prophet or a realist? Hall hesitates to answer. But if we listen carefully enough, we can certainly hear the screams.

‘Hurt Village’ runs through 31 at the Grace Temple Church in Oakland. For tickets and information please click here.