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An actress asked Anton Chekov if he could make her an artist. "Yes I can," said the great Russian writer, "but first I must break your heart."

In Katori Hall's "play with blues music," Toulou wants to sing the blues. She finds her artistic voice through shards of heartbreak.

A young African-American, she lives in a one-room shack near Memphis' famed Beale Street, where blues singers came up Highway 61 from Mississippi seek their fortune. When the play begins, Toulou washes clothes to earn her keep and can't sing a note on key.

Even more than mastering the blues, she longs to know "what it feels like when somebody loves you all the time." Her part-time lover, a singer called Ace of Spades, has played "sloppy" with her and many others.

Toulou's brother Jib's an aspiring preacher. But it doesn't take long to identify the bigger two-timer, Jib or Ace - or to discover whose ways are most wicked.

Toulou consults Candylady, her hoodoo-conjuring neighbor, about a "backwoods potion" guaranteed to keep Ace true. An ex-slave, Candylady comes from a tradition as old as the one Jib preaches. She tells Toulou: "you want salvation, go to church; you want something done, come to me."

Hoodoo Love unfolds like a fable with a brutal underside. Toulou suffers almost every abuse a man can inflict.

The play also unfolds as if unsure where to go next. And the characters waver between two- and three dimensions (it's an early work; Hall went on to write The Mountaintop, about Dr. King's last night, which won London's prestigious Olivier Award for best play - and which a local company should stage soon).

Mo `olelo's technical work - Stephen Terry's lighting, E.M. Gimenez's sounds, and David F. Weiner's set (with a spinning shack) - always serves the show. Though Dwight Bacquie's dialect coaching's so precise it makes some speeches hard to comprehend.

On opening night, Kirkaldy Myers had yet to inhabit Jib; he demonstrated rather than exuded evil. Stu James gave Ace a sly countenance but could've been a titch more raw with his blues numbers.

Candylady's so old she "bleeds dirt" and so tough she could "burn a hole through hell." Monique Gaffney, who slogs around on creaking bones, convinces she could do both.

The play has highs and lows (and when the former, under Nataki Garrett's direction, powerfully so). But Mo `olelo had made a find that trumps the troubles.

One of the highest compliments a critic can make happens when the lights come on at intermission. While everyone else these days flicks on rectangles of light and thumbs down the center, the critic dives into the program notes to read the actor's bio.

Jasmine Hughes: B.A. Tougaloo College, M.F.A. Cal Arts; several impressive credits. Okay. But where did she get the Gift?

Hughes gives a special performance as Toulou. She reacts with the elastic chakras of a little girl. She digs deep, often going from zero to 200 at light speed. Toulou yearns, suffers, and grows - and her final song packs in all the dues she paid to sing it.

The great Delta blues singer Robert Johnson allegedly made a pact with the devil on a dusty crossroads at Hazelhurst, Mississippi.

Hughes' captivating performance suggests a pact with Chekhov.

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