Last night Harriet Walter was splendid as she recited various passages from literature related to the trope of clothing. Woven together with explanatory stitches by Helaine Smith, the passages came from Shakespeare, Robert Herrick, Alexander Pope, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Richard Wilbur, and Elaine Sexton. The performance, called Clothed in Words, was held in conjunction with a current show of hats at the Bard Graduate Center. The audience, mostly white, mostly women, mostly older, laughed appreciatively and burst out in spontaneous applause when Walter read out Elizabeth Bennet's reception at Netherfield Park after trekking three miles in mud. I last saw Walter as Queen Elizabeth in Schiller's Mary Stuart, a Donmar Warehouse production that moved to Broadway. She was very fine there too.
Two Thursday ago, March 8, LW and I watched Katori Hall's play Hurt Village at the new Pershing Square Signature Center. Set in a south Memphis housing project, during the "Second Bush Dynasty," the action revolved around a family's attempt to move out of the drug-and-gun-ridden neighborhood for a better place. This aspiration drove Big Mama (a wonderful Tonya Pinkins), the matriarch of four generations under her roof, and was embodied in her precocious great-granddaughter Cookie (the rappin' heart of the show, Joaquina Kalukango). We watched the family struggle against the restrictions of their lives as Cookie watched, for a school science project, the fleas trying to jump out of a glass jar. The feeling of being trapped was intensified by the complete absence of any white characters.
They were in the audience, of course, for, except for a sprinkling of black and Asian faces, the audience was white. The polite attentiveness of the audience was thrown into stark relief by the strong language, punctuated by obscenities and curses, and nervy movements of the black characters and cast. Directed by Patricia McGregor, the rapid succession of scenes, TV-like, gave little concession to traditional notions of the well-made play. Hall's The Mountaintop, a dialogue between Martin Luther King Jr. and his hotel chambermaid, felt classical in comparison to this rich, dark, seething slice of life. I don't mean to tap into noxious stereotypes here, but Hurt Village derived its power from its straight line into the ground of African American lives at the start of the twenty-first century. It battered the senses that have not grown accustomed to living like this.