Art Talk with Playwright Katori Hall

By Paulette Beete
a smiling African-American woman with curly locs wearing a green blouse
Katori Hall. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage

" I always say that I’m a writer who writes more from place than race." -- Katori Hall

Award-winning playwright Katori Hall hails from Memphis, Tennessee, where she credits her parents' everyday storytelling around the kitchen table as the spark for her interest in theater. She has written numerous plays, including Our Lady of Kibeho,  Saturday Night/Sunday Morning and The Mountaintop, which traveled to Broadway in 2011. In addition to playwriting, Hall has also written for television. Her credits include her own series The Dial, as well as an adaptation of Stephen L. Carter's The Emperor Of Ocean Park, currently in development. Hall will make her debut as a film director this fall with an adaptation of her play, Hurt Village. We spoke with Hall by telephone last week, just after the opening of her newest play, The Blood Quilt, at Arena Stage, a production that is supported by an NEA Art Works grant. Here she is on how setting informs her playwriting, how she thinks about failure, and how a frustrating acting class exercise launched her down the path of playwriting. NEA: We always like to start by asking what you remember as your earliest engagement with the arts? KATORI HALL: I feel as though I come from a family of storytellers and so we would sit around the kitchen table and my mom and dad would entertain us with tales of the annoying boss or the crazy coworker and they would take on the personas of these different people. So even though it just seemed like everyday that was probably my first introduction to theater in its most communal and purest form--just sitting around in the circle and family just coming together to share. Having been raised in the Southern culture, an African-American family, [with] the idea that storytelling is a moment to testify and a moment to witness your life--that’s probably why I am even a dramatist because of how I saw my mom and dad come together every day and talk about their day. NEA: What was your journey from that family storytelling to becoming a professional playwright? HALL: I actually dabbled in journalism because I love stories and I loved people and I loved to tell stories that had not been told before so journalism just seemed like a very natural avenue for me to do all of those things. But then after the journalism thing I ended up catching the acting bug. And I remember [when I was studying acting] a teacher of mine told me and my scene partner to go to the library and find a play that had a scene for our type and our type being young black women. I remember going to the Columbia [University] Library and we were pulling all of these books off the shelves and it was just really hard for us to find a play that had a scene for two young black women. Even black playwrights weren’t necessarily writing [about young black women] or the black playwrights that had been writing those scenes were not on the Columbia bookshelves. So we ended up going back to our teacher and [asking], “Becky,do you have any suggestions because we just can’t find anything?” And ten seconds went by. Twenty seconds went by. Forty seconds went by. A minute went by and she could not think of a play that had a scene for two young black women, and she had been teaching drama for decades at that point in time. So at that moment I said to myself very silently, it was just something that I said to myself inside of myself, “I have to write those plays, then. I have to carry that baton forward and write us into existence because if I don’t who else will?" NEA: As you write, what’s the question that you find yourself perpetually trying to answer? Or the story that you continually return to in your work? HALL: I think for me it’s a story about forgiveness. I’ve been trying to be a person who lets things go. I was reading something recently and this woman was quoted saying, “Forgiveness is actually a gift to yourself.” And I have yet to give that gift to myself in a consistent manner. I feel like every story that I have put on the stage has been a kind of journey for individual characters to forgive choices that they’ve made or forgive things in the past that happened between [them and others.] For example, in The Blood Quilt where you have these sisters dredging up all of this stuff so that they can have a catharsis and move forward. I think that’s what I’m constantly doing. And it’s interesting because I’m doing it in so many different ways. This past year I was just looking at the plays and the different worlds of women that I created. One was in 1981 Kibeho, Rwanda, you know, with the genocide. And then flash forward, there’s another batch set in a strip club in Mississippi, and then you have this one set on a fictional island off the coast of Georgia. The setting changes drastically and the tone changes drastically and the characters obviously are very different but they’re really circling this theme of forgiveness and letting go and the idea that you have to forgive yourself and other people in order to move forward into the life that you deserve. So I think that’s the story that I probably am writing over and over and over again. NEA: This next question is a three-parter: How does being a woman inform your work?  How does being a woman of color inform your work? And how does being a mother inform your work? HALL: I’ll answer the one about being a mother. I just write faster. Nothing has physically changed. I’m not deeper. I just write faster because my baby hates naps. He goes down and then I’ve got an hour or less to do a little bit of writing here and a little bit of writing there. So that’s kind of what’s changed about my writing in that regard. But being a woman and then being a woman of color, there’s some people who probably can answer that question separately but I just feel like those two parts of my identity are so inextricably linked that they inform one another so much because I feel like if I was a white woman I probably wouldn’t write the stories that I do. And then I’m a black woman from the South and so I have been made to think about race just by virtue of growing up in [that] region. I feel like America is hindered by its inability to deal with race, but I think the South and certain parts of the South are even more so hindered. I just feel as though not only does my womanhood and my color affect me but also my region affects me in terms of what I am writing about. It’s linked to the stories that I just told you. I want to see myself and I feel as though there’s this unfortunate historical fact of we have not been fully embodied on stage. I look at the people who are considered the greats, your Arthur Millers, your Tennessee Williams, and I’m disappointed by the character of Tituba [in Miller’s The Crucible]. I know Tituba and I know that deep down she is a truly complicated human being. But in the play she’s used as a plot device versus as a fully bodied flesh-and-blood black woman. I feel as though my challenge that I’ve given myself is that as a woman, as a black woman specifically, as a black woman from the South, I have to up-end and continuously challenge and flesh out the narrative of that particular voice because I don’t think the canon is as fully ripened when it comes to our particular perspective. Now I love that writers like Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage are being embraced. There’s still more of us. I feel as though Danai Gurira or Dominique Morisseau or Nikkole Salter, those women who are writing plays today, these contemporary plays about the African-American female experience, they belong on the shelves at Columbia University. I hope that a student who is coming through the acting program now, when she gets that assignment to go and find a play that has a scene for your type, that she can pull Hurt Village off the shelf. She can pull Sunset Baby off the shelf. I hope that we’ve moved forward enough in that regard, but I’m not totally sure. Everybody is influenced by who they are and unfortunately how other people perceive them to be. And race is a perception. It’s not even a true thing. It is truly a mental construct but because it is this idea that is made very real due to other people’s actions and reactions toward you it’s obviously going to inspire your work. It’s going to make you mad enough to write. And sometimes it makes you mad enough to not write. (laughs) And to go out and march. It’s just part of living as a female artist of color. NEA: That seems like a good place to ask aboutThe Blood Quilt. You were working with a production team and cast that were mostly black and mostly women. How did that affect the production? HALL: It wasn’t like a totally black female production team. We had our director, obviously a black woman, the characters are black women so those had to be black women. And then we had a music advisor Toshi Reagon who is a phenomenal folk singer and musician. And then we had Camille Brown who was a movement consultant. And then we had Dede Ayite who was the costume designer. So we definitely had a laying on of hands from a lot of black women as creative partners in the birthing of this new baby, this new being that’s walking through the world. I think the process definitely benefited from having so many brown women talking and guiding it through because it’s so about that particular experience and written so specifically to articulate that black female experience in America, particularly in the South. And the fact that that’s so rare I think was what the most beautiful thing about the process was. It was like a miracle to have that many black women sitting around the table in positions of great power. I feel like it was empowering to the women who were trying to breathe life into these characters because even the characters are powerhouse women themselves. There’s a line in the play, it’s like, “A circle of women is a powerful, powerful thing.” And I just really feel as though there was a level of authenticity that was fused into the work. And a lot of honesty…. There was a kind of bluntness that I really appreciated. I feel as though sometimes when you are working with a person who is not of your same cultural background that things can get lost in translation. But because everybody sitting at the table was the same we were able to talk a shorthand that other people were like, “What the hell are they talking about?”  So I found that it was just this huge blessing. It was just this miracle that was unfolding and we just went along on the ride. NEA: Where do your plays start for you? Do they start with a line of dialogue, a character, a situation? HALL: Everything starts so differently. I will say most of my plays start from place. I always say that I’m a writer who writes more from place than race. Setting is just super important, whether it’s the particular country I’m setting it in, a village versus a city, an apartment versus a house, a three-story house. That really allows me to find the structure of the play for some reason. If I know where a character sits in the house then I can figure out who they are. So really that’s what I need to know before embarking on a play. That being said, sometimes it is this image of a character. [In] Saturday Night/Sunday Morning there’s a beauty shop during the end of World War II and the women are waiting for their men to come home. And there’s one woman in particular [who’s] been depressed for four years because she hasn’t gotten the letters that her man promised to send her from abroad. And one of the other boarders in the beauty shop/tenement house ends up pretending to be the woman’s lover from abroad and writing a letter on his behalf. And so there’s a cool kind of Cyrano thing happening. What started that play was I saw a woman sitting at a bay window and she was dressed in a forties-style dress and her hair was done in these beautiful curls, that forties style, almost like a pinup style, and she was smoking a cigarette and she was so sad. So that was the way that I was able to get into that story, [with] this image of this particular character who became the character of Leanne. For me it never starts from one particular line of dialogue. I think because my plays are so dialogue-heavy, there’s just not one thing that will kick me off. It has to be how the play looks in my mind or how a character looks or even a particular mood sometimes inspires me to jump inside of a play. NEA: You were one of the first resident playwrights at Arena. What does that mean and what were the benefits and challenges of that situation? HALL: I was one of the inaugural playwrights [for the] American Voices New Play Institute. I think it was five playwrights who were picked and it was for three years. I ended up doing it for two years because my particular residency was set up differently. It was like a renewable residency just because I was  going back and forth between L.A. and DC. There was a lot going…. I think the other playwrights probably were a little more established. But I didn’t have anywhere to live; I ended up getting a place to live for a year. I had no health insurance; I ended up getting the best health insurance that I’ll ever probably have. I’m mad that I still don’t have the health insurance. [laughs] I got paid. I was on staff. I got a development budget and you end up getting one of your plays produced. So basically you have this theater who is demanding that you do your work, finish your work. They became a laboratory to help you along the way, every step along the way. The Blood Quilt started from a development workshop that I ended up doing in 2013. I didn’t even have a whole draft of the play finished. I probably would have written The Blood Quilt but I probably would have taken five more years to write it if I had not had the support of this wonderful fellowship that Arena started and that a lot of theaters are now doing. In terms of challenges, the good thing about the Arena residency is that you can create work and it is unfettered. So nothing is particularly a commission even though they do commit to a production of your work. But it can be a production of an older play. The first production I ended up doing of any of my work was The Mountaintop. That wasn’t a new, new play at the time. That was something that had already gone through its various permutations over in London and eventually on Broadway, but they ended up doing the play and also doing this new one. I think it’s because for them the relationship extends beyond those first three years, and for me those first two years, of the residency. It’s kind of like a lifetime commitment. It’s like an old friend that you don’t hang out with for a long time and then they call you up and it’s like oh, okay, let’s go back and hangout and you create a play together. That’s how I see the residency working now and probably working in the future for me. I can’t say that there were any downsides or big challenges to the residency just because it is so based on the writer being first and the fact that you can create work and it’s not something that Arena options and [prevents] other theaters from doing. They come into the relationship being very generous and very supportive of the writer. The writer is first, which is very awesome. There are not a lot of theaters that are doing stuff like that. I actually ended up getting another residency at Signature Theater, and I feel like the Signature Theater [in New York City] and Arena are probably the best in terms of putting their writers first and really just being a safe haven for the work. NEA: We recently did an issue of NEA Arts magazine in which we asked artists to talk about their relationship to failure, and I’d like you to respond to that same question and to also talk about your definition of success. HALL: That’s a wonderful question because I’m still trying to figure that out. I think failure for other people may be like, “Oh my gosh this critic hated this play, and I’m a horrible writer and blah, blah, blah.” For me, I don’t give two shits if a critic likes my work because the number one goal every time I write is that I have to be creatively satisfied. I have to have grown in that particular artistic journey. For Our Lady of Kibeho earlier this year I was working on plot because I find that sometimes I don’t do plot so well. So I was like, “I’m going to just hone this play down to the nitty-gritty plot points and it’s just going to move like an engine.” And I look back at that particular play and I’m like, "Okay I did that." For Pussy Valley [the idea] was, “I want to write a play that is more about atmosphere and plot be damned.” And I look back and I did that. The Blood Quilt was about me having to be honest about the fact that when I got to rehearsal I realized that I had written the wrong play, meaning I took this wrong turn when I was writing probably some three or four drafts back, and I had stayed in the wrong neighborhood basically. And at the end of the first week I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to rewrite most of the play.” And so another playwright would have been like, “Oh my gosh, I just have to stick to what I’ve got and I’ll fix it later.” But I took 70 pages or more and chucked it into a garbage can and I started rewriting the play. For me, that is the bar that I’m trying to hit in terms of this experience. I just want to grow every time that I do the play. I probably failed at something. I probably failed in that play in that the second act may have been a little bit too long. Or this character had too much to say and that character didn’t have enough to say. I may have failed in those things but the fact that I was able to stare my monster in the face, that monster of wanting to please other people before pleasing myself, like I slapped that monster down. I put her in a closet and I locked her ass up. And I wrote the play that I had been wanting to write but for some reason did not allow myself to do that. To me that was one of the greatest successes I probably have had in my life. I was just so honest with myself and so honest about where the play was and where it needed to be. So yeah failure, it’s actually a good thing. I think failure is information. I used to look at failure as like, “Oh my gosh, I’m horrible. I should stop writing.” It’s like no. Maybe that page isn’t that good or maybe that scene isn’t that good. Number one, you can fix it. And the fact that you even know that something is wrong is a wonderful success in itself. I’m beginning to move to a place where I think failure doesn’t even exist anymore. That it’s just all information. And it’s all just about getting better and it’s more about process than the result. NEA: My final question is actually a fill in the blank: The arts matter because ______________. HALL: The arts matter because they saved my life. Did you know that Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison also thinks that "failure is information?" Learn more and read what other artists have to say about their relationship to failure in the "The Art of Failure" issue of NEA Arts