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Sluggish pace weighs down Collective’s ‘HooDoo Love’

LaRoyce Hawkins Lynn Wactor star The Collective Theatre’s producti“HooDoo Love.” |  Phoby Michael Brosilow

LaRoyce Hawkins and Lynn Wactor star in The Collective Theatre’s production of “HooDoo Love.” | Photo by Michael Brosilow

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When: Through Oct. 21

Where: Athenaeum Theatre Studio, 2936 N. Southport

Tickets: $32

Info: (773) 935-6875; www.athenaeum

Updated: October 30, 2012 6:07AM

For its inaugural production, The Collective Theatre, Chicago’s newly established African-American company, has selected Katori Hall’s “HooDoo Love,” a decidedly unromanticized view of black life in 1930s Memphis.

For all its Depression-era atmosphere and “black magic,” Hall’s play (first produced in New York in 2007), could easily be condensed into a very bleak but wholly familiar blues song. Instead, she has stretched it into a drama that takes an often interminable-feeling 2½ hours to unspool. And while it is receiving a physically handsome, moody production by the Collective under the direction of Nelsan Ellis (the actor best known as Lafayette Reynolds on HBO’s vampires series, “True Blood”), his pacing can be sluggish at times, despite the best efforts of his cast of strong actors and musicians.

The moral of the story Hall spins in “HooDoo Love,” which is set in a ramshackle, segregated corner of Beale Street, might best be boiled down to this old adage: Be careful what you wish for.

That warning came to mind time and again as I watched the play’s tragic central character, Toulou (Lynn Wactor, who taps into her character’s decency and passivity). Toulou is used and abused by two different men. There is her brother, Jib (Mark Smith, who gets right to the oily, loathesome core of his character), an evil, hypocritical preacher. And there is the great love of her life, known as the Ace of Spades (Laroyce Hawkins, who captures both the restlessness and disappointment of the man), a musician with a ramblin’, gamblin’, womanizin’ way of life. She also is badly served by her seemingly helpful neighbor, Candy Lady (a deftly manipulative Toni Lynice Fountain), the elderly “conjure woman” with recipes for everything for making a man dependent and lovesick, to aborting an unwanted child.

Toulou, who escaped the cotton fields of Mississippi (if not her incestuous family), wants a man who will truly love her, but she also wants to become a blues singer, perhaps even following Ace of Spades to Chicago. Does she have talent? Perhaps. But her rotten luck is far stronger. And perhaps because she has been so psychologically damaged over the years she is unable to fully break free of the men who do her wrong.

Helping to frame the story is the sexy, heavily inebriated club singer, Lilli Mae (Opal Demetria Staples, fun to watch, but overmiked), backed by onstage musicians Leon Q. Allen (trumpet), Giles Corey (guitar) and Thomas Lowery (percussion), under the musical direction of Tim McNulty.

Henry Behel’s manually rotated set (with richly atmospheric lighting by Cat Wilson, and sound by Daniel Carylon) is perfect down to its screen door and worn iron bed. And all told, the production neatly suggests a world in which the church, the juke joint and a garden of superstitions coexist.

It will be interesting to follow this company, whose founders are a group of six friends, all graduates of Thornridge High School in south suburban Dolton between 1994 and 2000, who went on to successful careers. With enough ambition (and financing), they might even think about staging the Chicago premiere of the recent musical, “The Scottsboro Boys.”

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