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'Hurt Village': Familiar story well told

Nicholas Christopher (Cornbread) and Corey Hawkins ( Buggy)

Nicholas Christopher (Cornbread) and Corey Hawkins ( Buggy) in a scene from "Hurt Village" by Katori Hall ("The Mountaintop") at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Credit: Joan Marcus

On the surface, "Hurt Village" seems like yet another sprawling, old-fashioned family melodrama about black people dead-ended in the projects by a lack of options and an abundance of drugs. But the surface soon splinters, bouncing the predictable plot against the sharp thrills of an original theater voice.

Katori Hall -- whose "The Mountaintop" just closed a successful run on Broadway starring Samuel L. Jackson as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Bassett as a mysterious motel maid -- is in less obvious commercial territory here.

"Hurt Village," which won last year's prestigious international Blackburn prize for women playwrights, is a dense, rich, musically audacious piece. It uses heavy (at times, hard-to-understand) street dialect, cruel-poetry rap, gay-panic insult patter and the Memphis street moves known as jookin' to shape nine standard-issue characters into stark individuals.

Hall is helped enormously by a big, intense cast that turns her characters' laughably cliched names -- Big Mama, Cornbread, Ebony -- into something close to tribal psychological touchstones.

The audience sits on two sides of the courtyard-shaped space, part of the monthlong rollout of playhouses in the Signature Theatre's impressive new home. The action happens in the nooks and swaths of David Gallo's long, double-decker set, a dilapidated project called Hurt Village, which is being razed to build condos for white people.

So yes, we're in gentrification hell again. But from the first moment of director Patricia McGregor's production, we are charmed by Cookie (the terrific Joaquina Kalukango), a bright, scary-wise 13-year-old, desperate to be a rapper, or a flight attendant, or anything that protects her from the crack and teen pregnancy that imprisoned her unwed mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake).

Tonya Pinkins has a riveting impotent rage as Big Mama, Cookie's grandmother, forced to beg city officials to move her family to a better place. Ron Cephas Jones has sleazy subtlety as the drug kingpin, and Corey Hawkins sheds painful layers as Cookie's father, returning damaged from Iraq.

The plot, including the projected chapter titles, could have been very old news. The play could be shorter. The dialogue could be easier to make out, especially when characters have their backs to us. But Hall gives them lush, motor-mouth arias and moves them in unpredictable clumps that fly over stock conventions and make them feel new.

WHAT "Hurt Village"

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., Manhattan

INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org.

BOTTOM LINE Deceptively familiar characters, original new voice

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