In a ground floor community room at Grace Temple Church (1433 12th Ave., Oakland), words rarely uttered in a sanctuary traveled like missiles. Expletives, the "n" word, angry outbursts that spew hate-filled resentment like confetti — even silences aren't a reprieve. Glares exchanged and backs turned are so explosive they shatter all hope of peace without a sound.
It's a scene of misguided motherly love at its bitterest. It's acting so real that listening to it makes your head ache and your guts broil. It's the Ubuntu Theater Project.
The rehearsal in the long-abandoned church on 12th Avenue brought to life playwright Katori Hall's 2011 play, Hurt Village. Directed by Nataki Garrett, it is the final production of Ubuntu's inaugural 2015-16 season whose theme is Threatened Homes. Founded in Oakland in 2012 and led by co-artistic directors William Hodgson and Michael Moran and managing director Colin Blattel, the company presents plays in novel settings, like car showrooms and aviation museums, that mirror or expand the content of each play.
Tennessee native Hall's profound and gripping Hurt Village won her the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and addresses the trauma and tragedy of gentrification and affordable housing. The action spirals out from a hardened core, Hurt Village, an actual housing project in Memphis, Tennessee. Initially built to prevent "white flight," Garrett said the perks originally available to white people drained away when people of color wound up occupying the project. "Now there's the same park, but the jungle gym hasn't been fixed in years. The same thing is happening here as people move out to Pittsburg and Antioch. Is there a plan?"
The question reverberates louder when she adds more than an afterthought: "The times we're living in, it's like a hostile takeover of Oakland."
Garrett's intensity rises on the yeast of personal history. She and her family moved to Oakland in 1977. "I was six years old. We lived on 9th, then 35th, then Skyline Hills apartments. My mom was a single parent. My Oakland was the city with the highest per capita murder rate. We saw heroin scourge across the city. It was dangerous: People struggled to live in these neighborhoods."
But what's important to Garrett — and the play's vital takeaway— is for people who are now being forced from the communities they created to know that their eviction is being witnessed and for non-victims to recognize and renounce the atrocities of systemic racist or socio economic class uprooting. "I want people to know that these destructions are real — people suffer. It takes a government to create ghettoes. People moving to Antioch because that's the only place they can get Section 8 subsidizing should know what's being created. They're in areas where they don't have resources, jobs. Where will they work?"
But answers don't come easily. That's true for the play's linchpin, thirteen-year-old Cookie, and her mother, Crank, a woman so worn and warped by her own addictions that she can't help but lash out, even when she's trying to express love.
"It's my third Katori piece," said Jasmine Hughes, who plays Crank. "As a woman from the south, from Greenwood, Mississippi, I think she writes for a woman like me. It's what I heard. It resonates with me on a real level."
That doesn't mean it's an easy role to perform.
"The challenge is sometimes a lack of urgency to go to the treachery in the play. It's some dark, scary, sorrowful beings that exist in this world. ... Crafting an authentic experience is a life or death situation. I'm obligated to be true to these circumstances."
Chaz Hodges, who plays Cookie, said she's never lived through the hellacious experiences her character encounters or had a mother who'll "make audiences cringe." Trusting the script to convey an assumed worldliness that Cookie is too young to own, but believes she possesses, Hodges called her character "a beacon of light who has be to be her own superhero."
Hurt Village will be performed on the second floor of Grace Temple, with a reverse thrust arrangement that puts the actors in a rim around a central vestibule. The audience, seated in pews, will watch the action play out on the fan-like staging.
"The whole event is about witnessing these people's existence," said Garrett. "Katori shies away from begging for forgiveness for these people who've been silenced or deemed unimportant. ... It's an Oakland play, in terms of Black people who are feeling discarded, abandoned in large, inner cities that are no longer chocolate. That's happening in Oakland; it's happening right now in people's lives."