Katori Hall’s “Hurt Village” is set in the same Memphis public housing project that produced National Football League offensive tackle Michael Oher. A “Blind Side”-style Hollywood feel-good ending isn’t on the agenda of this grim, unsubtle drama at New York’s Pershing Square Signature Center.
It’s the end of summer in the “second Bush dynasty,” as the script’s preamble puts it, and Buggy (Corey Hawkins) is back after years of military service in Iraq. The welcoming committee includes his outsize grandmother Big Mama (Tonya Pinkins) and Cookie, the 13-year-old daughter he never knew (Joaquina Kalukango), a precocious and eagle-eyed rapper.
“Hurt Village always been bad,” Cookie tells the audience, “but it done got bad-bad, like you-betta-move-yo’-Big Mama-out-these mutha-f****n’-projects-fo’-she-get-gang raped-robbed-and-murdered-by-her-Gangsta-Disciple-crack-head-son bad.”
The ‘F’ word makes more than 100 appearances.
At least one character is illiterate, and the uncompromising language can jolt unaccustomed ears and be difficult to decipher.
Amid a soundscape of offstage gunshots and some exuberant rapping, the ‘N’ word is casually uttered more than 200 times.
Hurt Village is to be razed to make way for condominiums. Buggy aims to support his family in the move to who-knows-where while coping with a dishonorable discharge and post-traumatic stress.
He’s trying to avoid the neighborhood’s one growth industry, dealing drugs, which claims the other male characters. Cookie’s mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake) has been crack-free for three years, but a fourth isn’t a foregone conclusion.
The magical realism in “The Mountaintop,” Hall’s Broadway play earlier this season about Martin Luther King, is kept to a minimum here, though one character becomes eloquent during a drug-inspired dream sequence.
All this takes place in David Gallo’s appropriately depressing assortment of grimy furniture and aging appliances. The actors, directed by Patricia McGregor, deliver their lines with understanding and conviction.
I came away thinking that while the play doesn’t offer answers about urban poverty, it can’t hurt to have theatergoers thinking about it for at least a couple of hours.
Through March 18 at 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org. Rating: **
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(Philip Boroff writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own.)