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Tuesday, March 5

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Theater Thu Sep 27 2012

HooDoo Love Casts its Spell on Chicago Audiences


(left to right) LaRoyce Hawkins, Toni Lynice Fountain and Lynn Wactor in The Collective Theatre's production of HooDoo Love by Katori Hall, directed by Co-Founder Nelsan Ellis. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

"HooDoo" you love -- and is it worth taking, and giving up a soul to know what it's like to feel love? So the questions runs like the Mississippi River "up south" to Harlem and Chicago from 1930s Memphis in playwright Katori Hall's thoroughly consuming and mesmerizing dossier, HooDoo Love.

As the blues combo moans and Lillie Mae's (Opal Demetria Staples) powerhouse pipes roar keep in unison musical narration, Toulou (Lynn Wactor) rants her life's frustrations to neighbor and HooDoo woman Candy Lady (Toni Lynice Fountain). Toulou would rather be singing down on Beale Street and seeing the world than cleaning white folks' houses; she'd rather Ace of Spades (Laroyce Hawkins) stay beside her and be her true man, rather than jumping the midnight train for up-south and other women. Of course Candy Lady has been around long enough to see everything, including things unseen by others, in her chicken bones and her root and herb concoctions. Candy Lady informs TouLou that she can keep Ace by her side and make him forget all that came before her, including his dead wife and child. TouLou is skeptical and not buying into old slave-world hoodoo ways until her long (and intentionally lost) brother Jib (Mark Smith) shows up at her shack, instinctively sending shivers of hate and fear through Toulou.

Candy Lady sees evil on the surface of self-proclaimed preacher man Jib, but not one to get into a family's business, she tells Toulou that they need to refocus on keeping Ace at home. Toulou becomes convinced when Ace comes to see her for the last time, confessing his undying love for his dead wife and his need to put his past in the past and leave for Chicago for the good of himself and his music career -- there's a white man in Chicago just waiting to sign him to a deal. Losing her man forever, and the realization that she cannot seem to rid her home of her too close for physical comfort brother, Toulou accepts Candy Lady's potion of oranges, cinnamon and rosemary, and the specific instructions that will keep Ace with Toulou once and for all. Ace has her body and soul, and Toulou will now have his.

With nine days of "treatment," Ace is a new man, all of his past loves' memories washed away. He's ready to hit the big time Chicago-bound, and he ain't goin' nowhere without Toulou. A former skeptic is filled with the joy of irrevocable love; Candy Lady's prescription made it so -- she "owns" a piece of Ace's heart.

Ace's instructions to Toulou are clear: he plays his last gig on Beale Street while she packs them up to catch the midnight train to Chicago. As she grabs the last garment for packing, brother Jib arrives, drunk on whiskey and lust. Jib rejects Toulou's protestations, and rapes his sister. Toulou misses her meet-up with Ace, who, believing Toulou has rejected him for another man, leaves without her.

A few months later Ace returns, as does Jib. Toulou, now pregnant with a child of uncertain parentage, receives counsel from Candy Lady via the chicken bones. The fate is written in the bones, but Candy Lady warns, the fates can be changed by the blowing of the breezes, or the actions of those cursed by it. Jib and Ace, after spending a night of drinking and carousing on Beale Street, challenge one another to a card game -- Spades. If Jib wins, he gets Ace's guitar; if Ace wins, he gets Jib's leather-bound flask; but the true unspoken prize that both men want to possess is Toulou, and the competition is sprinkled with talk of Toulou, until the rage and venom spill over in both men, action is taken and the fate of all is sealed.

Nelsan Ellis ("True Blood," The Help) seamlessly directs an astonishingly talented cast of characters in a most difficult subject matter. Playwright Katori Hall has written the lines off the page in one of the most exquisite and excruciating theatrical endeavors to grace a stage. There is a low hum of quiet ferociousness, and its subject matter plays out so that one is drawn in feet first, squirming every step of the way. Hall and Ellis concoct a malaise that one can't shake, but a malaise that demands to be satiated. You are literally wrenched in to the subject and the performances.

All of the actors go above and beyond the challenge of their respective characters and the subject matter, and Opal Demetria Staple's Lillie Mae winningly sings through the heartbreak of all of it. But it's Mark Smith's performance as Jib that delivers a scorpion's sting; he channels the evil-incarnate that is Jib and lays him bare; there are no pieces to pick up after an encounter with Jib. I found myself squirming and clutching for breath the moment he takes the stage. With Smith, you feel Jib's evil, long before he arrives, and long after he leaves. It is a performance to be seen, and rewarded.

HooDoo Love is an experience not to be missed.

HooDoo Love plays at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., through October 21. Tickets are $32; $20 for students. Tickets are available online at or by calling the Athenaeum Theatre Box Office at 773-935-6875.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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