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Nelsan Ellis directs an intense, musical story of Memphis blues

Those who lament the lack of diversity in Chicago's off-Loop scene, and those who just enjoy a unstintingly immersive and gutsy piece of theater, will find much of interest in "Hoodoo Love," the very promising and powerful first production of a brand-new Chicago theater company known as The Collective Theatre. It sports the impressively intense directing services of co-founder Nelsan Ellis, currently best known for playing Lafayette on HBO's vampire-themed "True Blood," but clearly a stage director with striking commitment and potential.

Katori Hall's 2007 play, which has not been seen before in Chicago, is very much in Alice Walker territory ("The Color Purple"), filled as it is with poetic language and rough sexual themes. It's centered on Toulou (Lynn Wactor), a struggling, oppressed young woman in 1930s Tennessee who dreams of singing the Memphis blues on Beale Street. Toulou has two significant male problems in her life — and one tempting female solution.

The men are Toulou's rambling lover, Ace of Spades (LaRoyce Hawkins), who has to be persuaded to stay if Toulou is to attach herself to his dreams and his body, and Toulou's abusive brother, Jib (Mark Smith) who has to be persuaded to leave his sister alone. Eschewing the better choice of dealing with these problems directly, tough as that would be for a dirt-poor gal like this, Toulou turns to a neighbor, known as Candy Lady (Toni Lynice Fountain), who has various available potions and lotions that can help a struggling girl control her men. At a price.

"Hoodoo Love" is a play with music, which often means some dude laying down a few guitar licks at the side of the stage. Not here. The musicality of this piece is spectacularly realized here in the bowels of the Athenaeum Theatre, with a deeply focused three-piece band, one of whom seemed so lost in the ambience of the show that you feared for his ability to snap out of it and face the rest of the day, and the formidable vocal services of lead singer Opal Demetria Staples.

Staples is a legendary name in Chicago gospel music, and Opal Demetria Staples not only has the famous family pipes but a rich (and nicely sardonic) interpretive gift. Better yet, there are a lot of other legit singers in this cast (both Hawkins and Smith among them). If the reviews of the New York premiere of this show are to be believed, the musicality of Hall's language and of the music behind these characters were kept in opposite corners of a church. Not here.

If you're a fan of old-line acoustic blues, this show is well worth your time for the music alone, whatever you might think of the play.

I thought very highly of it — mostly because Ellis so clearly commits to the melancholy mood and sexual gestalt of this piece and the reality of these characters. One would not want to over-emphasize how much "True Blood" has impacted Ellis, who still is a young artist. But in my mind, you can see the influence of his spending so much time in a TV show that puts so much emphasis on sensuality of place — and on a kind of punk-Bayou aesthetic style that's not that far, really, from 1930s Memphis. "True Blood," of course, has the money to create many settings at once, each malleable to mood. To a large extent, Ellis achieves something similar here in a little Chicago studio, only with a lot less money and with a real talent for the particular needs of the stage.

Most of these actors are newcomers to Chicago theater and Wactor, who plays the lead role, has an endearingly earnest quality coupled with a matter-of-factness that only makes you care more for her character, stuck without an easy way to achieve her aspirations. The two men are both compelling in opposite ways: Hawkins has a rich sexuality; Smith feels aptly insidious. As Candy Lady, Fountain could use more definition and amplification, but she has the right searing eyes and unstinting presence.

Overall, "Hoodoo Love" needs to lose at least 10 minutes from its running time; if this company were smart, it would take care to fill in some pauses before the next performance. Granted, this is not a show that needs to move at breakneck speed — the Memphis blues always take their sweet time. But it still has to respect its audience's time. Clearly, Ellis and his cast know how to breathe as one, while making a world wail from the shadows. If they trim away just a little, they'd really have something to sing about here.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Oct. 21

Where: Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Tickets: $32 at 773-935-6875 or athenaeumtheatre.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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