The Ascent of Katori Hall

The Mountaintop scribe pulls no punches--and neither do her characters

By Alexis Soloski

The playwright Katori Hall has a voice like a luxury brand of caramel, sweet and rich and not a little salty. It has more than a dash of her Memphis upbringing—a high tone and a plush timbre with a tendency to lengthen short vowels into lush, long ones. The word “friend” becomes “freend,” pen becomes “peen.” During her MFA training in acting at the American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training in Massachusetts, some instructors tried to neutralize her accent. Hall resisted.

“There are certain sounds I can’t let go of,” she says, settled on a bench in the sunny atrium of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, her masses of hair swirled into locks and looped beneath a bright orange head wrap. She describes her particular vocal inflections as her past, her heritage. “I have to carry that with me.”

Hall’s concern with preserving her own voice stands in contrast to the linguistic opulence and variety of her work, scripts swollen with songs, rhymes, taunts and prayers—from The Mountaintop, which made its American debut on Broadway in the fall of 2011, to Hurt Village, which played at the Signature Theatre Company in New York the following winter, to WHADDABLOODCLOT!!!, which premiered at Williamstown in August.

WHADDABLOODCLOT!!! centers on Eden Higginbotham, a Chanel-clad vixen who wakes from an ischemic stroke to find that her crisp, Ivy League inflections have been replaced by a thick Jamaican drawl, occasioning much confusion among all who see and hear her. Not only does Hall’s script switch between snappish Central Park tones and languid island patois, but she also writes for characters who speak in accents ranging from the relatively conventional (Spanglish, Southern U.S., Long Islandese) to the rather more particular and exotic (Senegalese, British/Hungarian, Czech/Australian/Russian). Even the brief Williamstown run required the services of two separate dialect coaches.

Though now 31 and a resident of polyglot upper Manhattan, Hall grew up without much exposure to such unusual intonations—or to much in the way of drama. The first play she ever saw, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which she attended on an elementary school field trip, “just made like a huge, huge, huge impression on me,” she recalls. But Memphis “wasn’t a huge theatre town,” and her schools lacked drama programs. Her sole role before college: Henny Penny in a kindergarten production of Chicken Little. “I forgot my line,” she remembers.

For theatricality, then, she looked first to athletics. “To me, sports are a kind of theatre,” Hall allows. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in the end, and that’s what the best plays are.” She credits the fight and drive of many of her characters to watching sports with her family. And on Sundays, she would attend church, listening to biblical stories enacted by her pastor, watching praise-dance troupes. That, she says, felt like theatre, too.

At Columbia University, which she attended on a full scholarship, Hall majored in African-American studies with a concentration in creative writing. There she began to see more plays and to read them, too. “Growing up in Memphis, I didn’t know who the hell Strindberg was,” Hall says. It was after she read Strindberg, and then, later on, the work of playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage, that she began to recognize herself and her own experience in dramatic characters.

As a Columbia junior, Hall took an acting class that steered her away from journalism, a career she’d long aimed for, and toward playwriting. In a course on naturalistic acting, the instructor broke the students into pairs and told them to go to the library and find a two-person scene appropriate to their physical type. Hall and her scene partner, another African-American woman, headed to the library.

“We sat there for hours pulling out all these damn plays,” said Hall. A Raisin in the Sun wouldn’t do, as neither woman considered herself the right age to play Mama. The Crucible wouldn’t work, as they couldn’t both do Tituba. Dispirited, they returned to the classroom and asked their teacher—who couldn’t think of a suitable scene, either. In that moment, said Hall, she decided that if such plays didn’t exist, she would “have to write them.”

Actually, Hall had already begun her first play, a tragic, magic-inflected romance called Hoodoo Love, set in Memphis during the Depression. But writing took something of a sideline while she completed a master’s degree in acting at the ART Institute, for which she auditioned with speeches drawn from As You Like It and The Piano Lesson. She studied both at Harvard University’s Cambridge, Mass., campus and in Moscow, where her hair rendered her a novelty and where she would sometimes amuse herself by telling inquisitive Russians that she was Whoopi Goldberg’s daughter.

While as an undergrad she had been relegated to mostly secondary roles—she still bristles at having been passed over for Irina in Three Sisters—at ART she did play Irina (albeit in a scene-study class) and many other roles, some black, some white. In addition to Chekhov scripts, she acted in Ernest Hemingway adaptations, Bertolt Brecht cabarets, Christopher Durang comedies, and even learned a Czech accent for a production of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. (Her dialect class never seemed to cover “black” accents, she remembers.)

Hall booked some work after graduation, appearing in a couple of Law and Order episodes, but not enough to avoid a day job. Had she won roles more consistently, Hall says, she still would have continued to write, but she might not have applied to the prestigious playwriting program at the Juilliard School, which accepted her on the strength of Hoodoo Love (which would go on to have its New York premiere in 2007 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and which is currently running in Chicago in a production by the Collective Theatre Company). Durang, who runs the Juilliard program with Marsha Norman, recalled her in an e-mail as “charming and extremely beautiful.” What surprised him, he wrote, was the variety of her subjects and “and how seemingly effortless her writing was in almost everything she took on.”

At Juilliard, Hall wrote Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, a comic drama with a Cyrano de Bergerac strain and a mostly female cast set in a Memphis beauty shop at the end of World War II. She also crafted Hurt Village, set in a nearby housing project some 60 years later. And it was there she began to work on a play she had long contemplated, The Mountaintop, a two-character piece featuring Martin Luther King Jr. and a young hotel maid, set in Memphis’s Lorraine Motel on the evening before King’s assassination.

 

Hall’s mother, Carrie Mae Golden, had wanted to go and hear King deliver what would be his final speech, the one in which he proclaimed, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” But Golden’s mother, citing bomb threats, withheld permission. Golden, said Hall, “thought about running down the street or going out the window or whatever, but she decided to stay at home,” a choice which remains the greatest regret of her life.

Golden often told that story to her daughter, which, said Hall, “planted a seed in me so deep that when I got the skill and the desire and passion to write the story, I took it on.” In the play, Carrie Mae Golden transforms into the motel maid Camae, who brings coffee to King and helps him pass his last night on earth. In fiction, then, if not in life, Hall salves her mother’s regret, granting a private audience and an uninterrupted hour with the man Carrie Mae had longed to see.

Just after finishing the two-year Juilliard program, Hall received word that Theatre503, an intimate space above a pub on London’s Battersea Park Road, wanted to produce The Mountaintop. That acclaimed production transferred to a West End theatre and in 2010 it won the Olivier award (England’s version of the Tony) for best new play, beating out Jez Butterworth’s much-lauded Jerusalem and surprising nearly everyone—with the possible exception of Hall, who hadn’t even attended the West End opening night, preferring to stay in Africa with the man who would shortly become her husband, where she was researching a new play.

Hall said she doesn’t place much emphasis on awards. “The Olivier, it was like okay, cool,” she shrugs. “But it doesn’t impress me. What impresses me is if I have a diverse audience; what impresses me is if I get to say exactly what I want to say in exactly the way I want to say it; that’s what impresses me.” She does concede that she appreciates the greater opportunities that awards might provide.

Candidly ambitious, Hall speaks often about her “über-goal,” establishing a sizeable body of produced work. When she receives word that a theatre wants to mount a play, her reaction, she notes, is often not one of pleasure and delight, but of cool-headed appraisal: “Okay, you want to do this play, but I wrote 10. Who’s gonna do those?”

Even on the first night of WHADDABLOODCLOT!!! at Williamstown, she had a conversation with a festival worker with whether or not she could stuff the programs with postcards for an upcoming show—a production of Children of Killers, a youth drama focusing on the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, originally written for London’s National Theatre. That show opened at Manhattan’s Castillo Theatre in September and runs through Oct. 28.

Even if Hall disclaims awards and West End transfers, it was likely the Olivier imprimatur that interested Broadway producers in The Mountaintop, which opened in October 2011 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, starring Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as Camae. Atypically, that Broadway season also featured two other works by African-American women, Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly and Suzan-Lori Parks’s new book for Porgy and Bess. Some media outlets reported this as a trend, but Hall remained skeptical. “I was always like ‘Careful, careful, careful—what will the next season be?’” she says. And indeed, the 2012–13 Broadway season promises no such trend.

On Broadway, The Mountaintop recouped its investment and delighted many in the audience, who sometimes talked back to the actors, engaging verbally with the play, a response that Hall praises as “explosive” and “visceral.” This season, it will play in at least a dozen regional theatres across the U.S. It has been licensed for Barbados and Australia, as well.

Yet American critics didn’t warm to the play as the English ones had, and it received no Tony nominations. Hall attributes this difference to U.S. attitudes toward King. Americans, she believes, prefer to see King as a saint rather than a man. Her play desires the opposite, as when Camae scents King’s shoes and crows, “Dr. Kang got stanky feet. Oooo! And you got holes in your socks, too?” Besides, says Hall, displaying some of the outspokenness she often reveals in interviews and in her lively Twitter feed, “I think critics tend to be dismissive toward young women writers anyway.”

Certainly, they didn’t react any more kindly to her next play, Hurt Village, which launched her tenure as one of Signature Theatre’s “Residency Five” playwrights, a five-year program that commissions and produces three plays per writer. James Houghton, the artistic director of the Signature, who had seen a workshop of Hurt Village during Hall’s time at Juilliard, calls Hall “fierce” and “fearless” and the play “an incredibly powerful piece of writing.” Set in a derelict housing project slated for demolition, it centers on Cookie, a mouthy, precocious 13-year-old, and the drug-doers, drug dealers and hard-scrabblers who surround her. “Folks round here so po’ we can’t even afford the r at the end,” Cookie tells us.

Only a few critics applauded the production, and several wrote reviews revealing a refusal to engage with the play and its characters. In some ways, Hall seems resigned to such analyses. “I can’t make them learn about being poor and black in Memphis, Tennessee,” she says, even as the play attempts to do just that. But then she adds, rather more darkly, “I must say, those critics do not want to be in a bar with me.”

 

Perhaps the quality that most distinguishes Hall’s writing—and which may alienate some viewers—is her refusal to write immediately likable characters. With the exception of sweet Camae, her figures are often spiky, appetitive, venial, uninterested in courting audience applause. Their obvious humanity demands empathy, but they certainly go out of their way to discourage it. “I feel like most people in the world aren’t easy to like,” Hall explains. “I’m really just interested in how dark I can go and still be entertaining.”

Similarly, Hall doesn’t pull any punches linguistically. She dots her conversation with various more-or-less unprintable terms and lards her scripts with far more. One scene of WHADDABLOODCLOT!!! focuses on Jamaican profanities, another debates the propriety of various racial slurs. Some audience members have objected to this vocabulary, but Hall defends her word choice. “I understand the power of language,” but as a writer, she says she needs access to the widest variety of expressions. So far no theatres have asked to moderate her scripts.

Just as Hall resists refining her language or writing straightforwardly sympathetic characters, she doesn’t seem particularly interested in being liked personally. She has acquired a reputation for forthrightness that can border on abrasiveness. Houghton, a great admirer, called her “very direct and very opinionated and very sharp and smart.” Hall admitted that while some may think her difficult, “for me it’s more about being adamant about my vision and having some kind of integrity.”

This bluntness occasionally comes through even in the course of a friendly conversation. When asked if her glut of Memphis plays—she has ones set in the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s and the 2000s—suggest a century-long project akin to August Wilson’s, she bristles visibly. “He’s August Wilson, I’m Katori Hall,” she declares. “I’m definitely not trying to do an August Wilson.” But she does acknowledge Beale Street as “the place that shaped me. Even walking around Williamstown, I’m as Memphis as can be. It’s a way to be at home.”

Hall doesn’t plan a return home anytime soon, at least not theatrically. She is at work on two Rwandan plays, one about three visionaries sanctioned by the Catholic Church and another set in 2014 on the anniversary of the genocide. She is also preparing a play about exotic dancers in Mississippi, entitled Pussy Valley, which may debut at the Signature, though she said she has some concerns about finding actresses sufficiently skilled in pole dancing. As if that weren’t busy-making enough, she also entertains herself with event planning, floral design, guitar playing and cooking, which has inspired her forthcoming blog “Katori’s Kitchen.”

Her creative process, she said, “is pretty joyful. I’m constantly inundated, I’m very sensitive, so I’m constantly looking for stories, feeling stories in my body.” As disparate as the voices she writes are—the rich ones, the poor ones, the black ones, the white ones, the violent ones, the victimized ones—she feels that they all connect to her own ways of moving in and through and with and against the world. In playwriting, says Hall, “I want to go to extremes because I feel like I’ve lived my life in extremes. Our work is us.”   

 

Alexis Soloski is a critic and arts journalist based in New York City.