Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.
Pictured: Martasia Jones and Shariba Rivers. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
By Sheri Flanders
“Hoodoo Love” at the Raven Theatre is a simple story. It is at its heart a romance, and like most romances, it is not complicated, and follows a fairly standard storyline: girl meets boy; girl and boy have trials and tribulations; in conclusion, girl keeps boy, or girl loses boy. Lights go down. Yet, like the best romance stories, “Hoodoo Love” understands that what is most important is to luxuriate in the journey and the mood. Like an afternoon with a good lover, a good romance savors each moment.
The cast is led by Martasia Jones who plays an earnest and ambitious Toulou, a delicious role of a Black woman who follows her desires aggressively and unapologetically, despite the seemingly impossible barriers that stand in her way. Jones is paired with Matthew James Elam as Ace of Spades who brings a kindness and gentle energy to the trope of the rambling, sweet-talking blues musician with a sweetheart in every city. The pair has great natural chemistry that makes their romance believable and sustainable enough to form the foundation of the story. Intimacy and Violence designer, Rachel Flesher, does an admirable job of shaping moments that are either titillating or emotionally impactful without being exploitative.
Wardell Julius Clark shows off his talents as a seasoned director here; as the title implies, the show contains mystical elements from the Hoodoo tradition, that in the hands of a lesser director could have come off as corny or clunky. Yet Clark integrates the elements in a naturalistic fashion that allows us to come along for the ride and not only to suspend our disbelief and buy into the world of magic, but understand why the need to believe in the transcendent power of magic and religion was so essential to a culture still bearing the metaphorical and literal scars from the lashes of slavery.
Shariba Rivers steals the show as Candylady, the village elder who has outlived 5 husbands, slavery, and the limitations of others. Rivers plays the part with gutsy and unapologetic gusto, bringing constant belly laughs while exploring hard truths about relationships, human nature, and her own limitations. She serves not only as a spiritual guide, but also as a satirical foil for mocking the shortcomings of religion.
Helping her in the task of sending up the hypocrisy of religion is Toulou’s long lost brother-turned-preacher Jib, grandly played by Christopher Wayland Jones. Jones is bumbling and hilarious in an extremely challenging and tricky role. While I understand the choice to fully lean into the slapstick elements to leaven the darkness, there is opportunity to find additional shades of complexity to this characterization, that will likely emerge throughout the run that will ultimately complete the link and lend cohesion.
It is very rare that a “man-chasing” story also feels liberating, yet the feminist in me must grudgingly acknowledge that “man-chasing” is an honest and true part of some of our lives. And in a story set just a few years after slavery, haunted by the specters of a lack of bodily autonomy and choice, it becomes clearer and easier to acknowledge that the ability to pursue the simplest of our hearts desires unfettered and without shame, is perhaps one of the truest expressions of freedom and independence that exists.
At its heart, “Hoodoo Love” at the Raven Theatre is a celebration of strong, independent women fully reveling in the joy of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I suggest you attend and let yourself get lost in the Hoodoo magic.