OROne afternoon in mid-June, playwright Katori Hall glanced at her phone. A text message had arrived from a former agent. “My God,” it said. Hall was confused. Then his current agent phoned and told him that he had just won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama.
“And I was like, ‘What ?!'” recalls Hall. “I started screaming and running in circles at my house.” His young son was less impressed. “He was like, ‘Mom, shut up. I’m watching YouTube. ‘
The predictions for the Pulitzer drama were a bit strange this year. With nearly all theaters closed since March, a play was as likely to appear online as anywhere else, and few could guess which plays the winners would reward. But the board ultimately chose Hall’s work. The Hot Wing King, which the quote described as “a fun and deeply felt consideration of black masculinity and how it is perceived, filtered through the experiences of a loving gay couple and their extended family as they prepare for a culinary competition.” (Runners-up included Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley Idiot circle, an online program, and Zora Howard’s Stew, which had an off-Broadway ground presentation last February). Hall had written the play as a tribute to his brother; I’ve never seen a story like his on stage before. “Watching him navigate the south of the world as a gay black man, I always wanted to tell some version of his story,” he says.
Speaking by video call from Atlanta, where he is filming the second season of his television series P-Valley, Hall says he didn’t have much time to savor the honor. “For a beautiful moment, one Friday afternoon, I was bursting with joy,” he says. “But five minutes later, I had to go to Zoom for a casting session.” The next day, a friend brought a bottle of Cristal. Hall fell asleep before he could drink a drop.
Like many playwrights, Hall was an actor first. And he may never have written if it hadn’t been for a scene study class at Columbia University. She and a classmate, the actor Kelly McCreary, were sent to the library, tasked with finding a naturalistic scene for two young women of color. “We couldn’t find shit,” recalls the 40-year-old. They went back to their teacher and asked for suggestions. The instructor was equally perplexed.
Later, Hall would discover that there was a work written by and for women of color. But in the classroom he had a revelation. “I was like, ‘I’ll have to write those plays, then,'” he says. “I was imbued with this desire to put plays that were a direct reflection of me on the shelf.”
At 20, Hall continued acting, earning a master’s degree from the American Repertory Theater, but also began writing more seriously. Accepted into Juilliard’s dramaturgy program, she studied with Christopher Durang Y Marsha norman, developing a body of work set primarily on and around Beale Street in Memphis, close to where she grew up.
The works that emerged were largely naturalistic, though streaked with magical realism. Similar in some ways to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, his dramas have an earthy character, humor, feminine outlook, and exuberant language that feels distinctly its own. A character in his drama Hurt Village, set in a volatile housing project, says: “I thought with poetic slants, diatribes / That my mind had more words / than the greatest dictionary could ever find.” That sounds like Hall too.
Success came early. A production of The Mountaintop, a soft, spiky fantasy about the last night of Martin Luther King’s life, opened above a London pub in 2009, the same year that Hall completed Juilliard. He moved to the West End and won the Olivier Award for best new play, a first for a black woman. The Mountaintop then hit Broadway, with Samuel L Jackson and Angela Bassett in the cast. In the US he met with a quieter critical reaction, particularly from white male critics, though he still got his investment back, a Broadway rarity.
“Artistically, I was doing things that I felt were so true to my impulses,” says Hall. “In fact, I was very frustrated that what I was doing did not seem to be respected in the way that I knew it should have been.”
Prestigious productions followed, as did more awards and a residency at New York’s Signature Theater. However, the critical response to his work remained mixed. “If you’re scared of a certain type of black person, you’re going to think, ‘I don’t know, this play… I don’t understand it,’” he says. She finds that New York audiences can approach Southern stories and characters, particularly black characters, with elitist attitudes and wishes New York theaters do more to develop diverse audiences who will laugh with their characters, not with they. But she has never altered her stories to suit a mostly white audience. Its objective? “I want to put you in the room with people you would never have invited into your own home.”
On the other hand, his greatest success, at least in financial terms, comes from the story of a woman that almost anyone would invite in. Hall wrote the book for Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which will reopen in the West End on July 28. and on Broadway on October 8. It was Hall’s first musical, although music permeates all of his work in one way or another.
The restrictions on a big-budget, biographical musical can be restrictive for some writers. But that wasn’t Hall’s experience, in large part thanks to Turner herself. “Tina really didn’t want a sanitized version of her life,” says Hall. “She wanted the sand. I wanted to show the cost, the emotional cost, of what happened. And I was like, ‘Ooh, I got you girl. That’s me. I can tell you the truth all day. ‘
Hall hasn’t found that the Broadway version plays much differently than the West End, though he acknowledges that it has done a better job of attracting black ticket buyers. “I love the fact that our black actors and actresses had the opportunity to look at the audience and see themselves reflected,” she says.
She thinks that’s particularly important to Adrienne Warren, who received a Tony nomination for her role as Tina. “She is performing trauma every night,” says Hall. “It is traumatic for her. Being able to see that you are not performing black trauma in front of a whole sea of white faces, that is better and safer for artists. “
Her desire to diversify her audience prompted her to switch to television, a medium where she knew she could more easily reach black viewers. P-Valley, an adaptation of one of his plays, is set in Pynk, a black-owned strip club in the Mississippi Delta. Without lewdness or apology, he focuses on the women who work there, tracing their lives on and off the pole. “As told almost entirely by black female and queer characters, it is one of the best new TV series of the year,” wrote the Guardian critic.
Although he has tasted the broader influence of television and its financial rewards, Hall has not abandoned the theater. “I think of the theater as a church. It is a sanctuary, ”he says. “Being able to put these characters in a room where you breathe the same air, it feels so real, sometimes more real than television.” And he believes it can also be more transformative. “There is something about a theatrical experience that sticks to your mind and heart in ways that television can’t necessarily do.”
Hall wants a play to be produced every year, although the pandemic, which happened to her young children, has slowed her productivity somewhat. Your job depends on finding a quiet place to hear the voices of your characters. “There is no silence because I am at home with children,” he says.
But the theater has experienced its own kind of silence in the last year, which has begun to recognize what the art form is and who can create it, witness it, and benefit from it. Hall feels that not much has changed so far, certainly not enough.
“The fact that most white men continue to run the show is wrong,” he says. “We can use our imaginations to think of anything, in any world, and yet in the theater we are sometimes a more staunch representation of white supremacy than even some white supremacists.” And yet he still hopes for a more just and equitable theater, a theater that invites everyone home.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism