“I lost my song. I lost it because I didn’t know what it was worth,” laments a young bluesman freshly returned to Memphis from an abortive attempt at making it in Chicago. Ace of Spades (Matthew James Elam) is speaking literally—like many Black songwriter-musicians before and after him, he got scammed out of the rights for a song—but the line has metaphorical heft in Katori Hall’s 2007 play Hoodoo Love, now at Raven Theatre under Wardell Julius Clark’s warm direction.
Ace is the reason things happen in this sometimes rambling but often arresting tale, set during the Depression in a poor Black section of Memphis, where the railroad’s whistle serves as a siren call for restless souls like Ace. But his lover, Toulou (Martasia Jones), is the driving force. In love both with Ace and with the idea of being a singer herself, Toulou enlists the help of Candylady (a riveting Shariba Rivers), the local “root woman,” to bind his heart to hers. It works for a time, but the arrival of Toulou’s Christian-in-name-only brother, Jib (Christopher Wayland Jones), causes an upheaval of biblical proportions.
For a play about aspiring blues singers, there isn’t a ton of live music in Hoodoo Love. This is instead a story about yearning and possibility, about the extreme measures those who feel thwarted by love and life will take to secure something for themselves before they lose their song. While Jones’s Toulou is caught between Ace and Jib, it’s her relationship with Rivers’s Candylady, who carries in her own mojo bag memories of slavery and of all the husbands she’s lost, that resonates most honestly. But at crucial moments, Candylady is unable to intervene.
Jones and Elam bring electrifying sensuality to their relationship. Jones in particular is believable as a young country-raised woman, eager to grab some city spotlight, who is stronger than the men around her. By the end, we realize Toulou doesn’t need hoodoo. She needs the mojo within her to lift her up past tragedy and find her own voice. v