Katori Hall: Creating Honest, Complex Reflections

Katori Hall is a playwright, performer and journalist from Memphis, Tennessee. Her award-winning play, “Hoodoo Love” received its world-premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre November 1, 2007. Her other plays include: “Remembrance,” “Hurt Village,” “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning,” “The Mountaintop,” and “Freedom Train.”
She is a recipient of numerous writing awards including the 2007 Fellowship of Southern Writers Bryan Family Award in Drama, 2006 New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Playwriting and Screenwriting, 2006 Royal Court Theatre Residency, 2005 Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. Recently, she was nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and the Susan Smith Blackburn Award.
As a journalist, her work has been published in The Boston Globe, Essence, Newsweek and The Commercial Appeal.
These are just some of the highlights of Katori’s career. Here’s Katori…

You are a playwright and a performer. Does knowing how to do both affect your work in both arts? What are your particular goals when you are wearing your playwright’s cap versus your performer’s cap? What are the similarities, if any?
I actually started writing plays out of frustration. I was taking a scene study class at Barnard and I asked my teacher if she knew of any good scenes for two young African-American women. She could only pull a few names from her memory. The usual, August Wilson…Lorraine Hansberry. “But even they don’t have a scene for two young African-American women,â€? she said. I remember staring into her blank face and saying to myself, “Well, I guess I’m gonna have to write them then.”
So, I’ve made a point to write plays that come from my own personal and cultural experience. Because I’m an actor, I try to write parts that even I would kill to play—complex, juicy, meaty, craft-building roles that are innovative and fresh. Both acting and writing require great use of one’s imagination. It’s just with writing you create a world with your mind, and with acting you create a character with your mind, your emotions and your body. Acting is your imagination in 3D. My goals for both art forms are essentially the same—to create a true reflection of the human experience for the stage.
For those of us who have not had the chance to see your recent production, ‘Hoodoo Love,’ what does the play mean to you, and how did you begin writing it? What kind of response did the play receive from the various audiences that went out to see it. Congratulations on all your awards!
“Hoodoo Love” is about a young woman named Toulou who pursues her dream of becoming a blues singer in 1933 Memphis, Tennessee. She falls in love with a rambling blues man named the Ace of Spades and when he doesn’t return her affections, she puts a hoodoo spell on him. I myself am a woman who is pursuing her dreams of becoming a dramatist in 2007 New York City. There is a lot of me in Toulou, her feistiness, her tenacity, her dogged determination to make it in a male-dominated industry. Well, I can definitely relate! It was important to create a complicated portrait of a woman who dares to do the seemingly impossible—capture her dreams and her heart. It’s a woman’s timeless conundrum, balancing the pursuit of work with the need for love.
I began writing “Hoodoo Love” as a writing student in the creative writing program at Columbia University. My professor gave an assignment where two people had to fight over an object. In my writing exercise, I had a woman and a man fighting over a mojo bag that held magical powers and, thus, the conception of “Hoodoo Love.”
The audience response was quite remarkable. White, black, young, old, man, woman all commented on the play’s great depth and humanity. It is a play with a black female central character, but it is a universal story about personal redemption and the power of dreams. Black audience members, specifically, often came up to me afterwards and thanked me personally for creating such an honest reflection of black life and people…there is dearth of complex characters of color for the stage and cinema. Despite the exploration of dark themes, the play possesses quite a bit of humor and the audience responded to that as well. We had standing ovations almost every night.

As a member of the Women’s Project Playwrights’ Lab, what issues or projects do you work on? What issues, if any, do you think you have faced as a black female playwright?

Last year, the Women’s Project produced a collection of short plays written, directed and produced by members of our professional labs at the World Financial Center. Called Girls Just Wanna Have Funds the site-specific work centered on the theme of women and their relationships with money. I contributed a small short called “Remembrance” about a black woman, who on her way to a high–profile corporate interview, bumps into her cousin, who works as a janitor in the building. It was a comical invisible theater piece staged in a lobby of the World Financial Center. Spectators thought they were watching real-life unravel before their eyes! They were stunned to find out that it was theatre.
I like to write about the intersections of race, class and gender. That is a busy intersection on this road called life, and I am interested in exploring the accidents and miracles that occur there. The Women’s Project has allowed me to do just that. The theatre has supported me tirelessly, given me a place to show my work, but more importantly, provided me with a community of other female artists who are dedicated to creating good, thought-provoking work that champions the diverse voices of women.
Last year the Dramatists Guild did a report on the state of women in today’s theatre world. Of the plays being produced nationwide, 80% are written by men, 20% are by women and of that 20%, 3% are by women of color. That tells you a lot right there. There are obstacles surely. The largest obstacle is convincing producing organizations that the stories you have to tell are commercially-viable and important to theatre-going audiences. I think that’s a challenge for every playwright, but even more so for black female playwrights. An institution is only a reflection of the society that it exists within, and American society still operates on the stead-fast remnants of racism and sexism. I am blessed that I’ve found female mentors—from Lynn Nottage to Marsha Norman—who can talk to me honestly about working in the world of theatre as a woman. I’m in it for the long-haul.
What have been some of your favorite experiences as an actor? What have been your most memorable characters? Do you overall choose the characters you want to portray? If so, what are some of the stories behind the characters you have portrayed?
Just recently I performed at the Public in one of Suzan Lori-Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays. I played the President in The “President’s Puppets.” My president was this sweet amalgam of Bush and Condi. Parks’ work is so achingly political and because of that it speaks to me. I am interested in how she fuses the personal and the political and how even when we are apathetic we are being quite political.
I also recently did a reading of a piece at the Culture Project called “The Banana Beer Bath.” Lynn had contributed the piece as a monologue to Eve Ensler’s new book, A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer. The monologue is about a Ugandan woman and her sister who hide from approaching rebel soldiers in a beer trough. I long to do more work like that as an actress. Deeply political work that’s simultaneously humane and moving work is hard to come by. But I must say, even though I only had one line, my turn as Woman #2 on “Law & Order: SVU” was quite a favorite. “I felt the same way when I was abducted by aliens.â€? Quite memorable.
You are also a journalist, what issues or topics do you report on or write about? What do you think about the current state of mainstream journalism?
I’ve worked less and less as a journalist as I’ve gotten more preoccupied with my creative endeavors. I would like to start back again, but after 9/11 I grew disgusted with mainstream journalism. I saw that the principles of objective reporting were being abandoned in favor of the reportage of sensationalist lies and half-baked truths. Uhm, like, where are the WMDs? As I’ve said before, institutions are only reflections of their societies, and the media as an institution should be ashamed of itself. Even today, the media’s preoccupation with Britney’s parenting skills only further proves the decline of the pursuit of reporting on issues that truly matter to the American populace. For this reason, I have gone on a diet for the first time in my life—a media diet. I haven’t watched television in over six months. I don’t buy magazines. I refuse to read the NY Post. My mind has been healthier ever since.
Do you have any upcoming projects or plays? What would be your dream project?
I have a plethora of projects in my birth canal! I have two plays I’m working on. One called “Hurt Village,” about a housing project being demolished under the guise of urban renewal and another called “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” set in a beauty shop/boarding house for women at the end of World War II. I’m also working on a couple of screenplay ideas. Funny, my dream project has something to do with TV! My mega-dream would be to work as a show runner for a new HBO series. I would like to create a show that explicitly addresses issues of class in a newly suburban black family. We’ve had “The Cosby Show” and “The Wire”. But I’m interested in the lives of black people living in the chasm between upper-middle class and broke. It’s an interesting valley indeed.

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