Spotlighters Theatre has never found it hard to bring diversity to the stage. As more regional and professional theaters are trying to feature more diverse casts and plays, community theaters are continuing the work they’ve done for years.
Watching “Hoodoo Love,” written by Katori Hall, the audience won’t be able to look away from the cast. Presented on a stage in the round, the theater holds about 65 people, each less than six feet away from the stage.
“Hoodoo Love” is a heavy drama. “It’s very dark, there’s rape and incest,” says Sharon Carter-Brown, who plays the lead, Toulou. The play follows Toulou as her friend, the Candy Lady, walks her through ways to secure love through the Black magic tradition of Hoodoo.
“I chose an all-Black play,” said director Rain Pryor, when asked about the value of diversity in theater. ”For me, I grew up around all kinds of people. The homophobes, the racists? Those were the weird ones.”
The play, set in the 1930s in Memphis, Tennessee, focuses on the intimate nature of Black spirituality and love. Hall is known for her work portraying the lives of Black people, from Martin Luther King Jr. in her play “The Mountaintop” to the iconic singer Tina Turner in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”
Hall won a Pulitzer Prize in 2021 for her play “The Hot Wing King,” also set in her hometown of Memphis. She is currently the head writer for the Starz TV show “P-Valley,” based on her play “Pussy Valley.” “P-Valley” is set in the fictional town of Chucalissa, Mississippi, and focuses on the lives of dancers in The Pynk, a beloved local strip club.
Spotlighters has always prioritized diversity. “We have always had a policy for what we call race-conscious casting. If a play calls for a specific actor in the script, then we will cast accordingly, but if not, then we go with whoever is best fit for the role,” said Fuzz Roark, the theater’s managing artistic director.
When Roark began creating the slate of shows for this season, he found Hall’s work compelling. “I read maybe 10 pages and said, ‘We have got to do this play.’”
“Hoodoo Love” first premiered over 10 years ago. The play features original music by Hall. The songs are short and sweet, the kind one sings absentmindedly while cleaning house or doing their hair. The play is not so much a musical but “a play with songs in it,” said Assistant Director Radiance Pittman.
The cast is filled with multitalented actors, including Sharon Carter-Brown, who plays Toulou, and Mark Wallace, who plays Ace.
Each of the actors brings their own stories and histories to the play’s spiritual aspects. Andromeda Bacchus and Wallace are both from Trinidad and Tobago, a place rich with Black ancestral history. “I know Candy Ladys myself from back home,” said Bacchus, who plays the Candy Lady in the production.
For Pryor, the spirituality is what called her to this play. “I’m an Osun priestess,” she said. “These days, that’s where my focus is.” In April, Pryor traveled to Nigeria to learn more about her spiritual family.
Since the pandemic, her schedule has changed drastically. Typically, she lived in California part-time to act and write. Now, she spends most of her time in Baltimore.
“It seems like with the pandemic, work just dried up,” she said. She’s been pitching series and writing, but it has left her questioning what is ahead.
Pryor had wanted to direct at Spotlighters for years; she and Roark have long been friends. “A lot of the Black directors I’ve worked with in the past have moved away, so I was happy that it worked out with Rain’s schedule,” Roark said.
“We [in community theater] are responsible for creating the future playwrights, designers and audience for the next generation,” Roark said. He recalls former students and actors who have come through Spotlighters and gone on to continue to work in theater.
Pushing the boundaries of which shows can be performed where and by whom is how people start to rethink the value of diversity in entertainment, Pryor said. For her, the call for diversity is simple: “Racists are weird to me, I don’t relate.”
“Hoodoo Love” opens at Spotlighters Theatre on Sept. 23 and will run for three weekends until Oct. 9. You can purchase tickets online and before the show at the Spotlighters box office (817 St. Paul St.).