On mid-June afternoon, playwright Katori Hall glanced at her phone. A text message had arrived from a former agent. “OMG”, we read. Hall was confused. Then her current agent called her, telling her that she had just won the Pulitzer Prize in theater this year.
âAnd I was like, ‘Whaaat ?!’,â Hall recalls. “I started screaming and circling around my house.” Her young son was less impressed. âHe said to me, ‘Mom, shut up. I watch YouTube. ‘â
Predictions for the Pulitzer drama have gotten a bit wobbly 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 works the winners would award. But the board ultimately chose Hall’s play The Hot Wing King, which the quote described as “a funny and deeply felt consideration of black masculinity and how it is viewed, filtered through the experiences of black men. ‘a loving gay couple and their extended family as they prepare for a culinary contest’. (The finalists included Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley’s Circle Jerk, an online show, and Zora Howard’s Stew, which had a terrestrial release off Broadway last February.) Hall had written the play as a tribute to her brother; she had never seen a story like hers on stage before. âSeeing him navigate the southern world as a gay black man, I always wanted to tell some side of his story,â she says.
Speaking via video call from Atlanta, where she is filming the second season of her P-Valley television series, Hall says she hasn’t had much time to savor the honor. âFor a beautiful moment, on a Friday afternoon, I wanted to burst out with joy,â she says. “But five minutes later, I had to go to Zoom for a casting session.” The next day a friend brought a bottle of Crystal. Hall fell asleep before she could drink a drop.
Like many playwrights, Hall was primarily an actor. And she might never have written without a stage study course at Columbia University. She and a classmate, 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 also puzzled.
Later Hall would discover that a body of work written by and for women of color existed. But in class, she had a revelation. “I was like, ‘I’m going to have to write these plays, then,'” she said. “I was just imbued with this desire to put pieces on the shelf that were a direct reflection of me.”
In her twenties, Hall continued to act, earning a masters degree from the American Repertory Theater, but she also began to write more seriously. Accepted into Juilliard’s drama writing program, she studied with Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman, developing a body of work primarily located in and around Beale Street in Memphis, near where she grew up.
The pieces that emerged were largely naturalistic, though streaked with magical realism. Similar in some ways to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, its dramas have an earthy side, humor, feminine outlook, and lush language all of their own. A character in his drama Hurt Village, which takes place in an unstable housing project, says: “I thought in poetic skews, rants / That my mind contained more words / That the biggest dictionary ever could have find some. It sounds like Hall, too.
Success came early. A production of The Mountaintop, a soft, barbed-wire fantasy about the last night of Martin Luther King’s life, opened above a London pub in 2009, the same year Hall completed Juilliard. He was transferred to the West End and won the Olivier Award for Best New Play, the first for a black woman. The Mountaintop then arrived on Broadway, with Samuel L Jackson and Angela Bassett in the cast. In the United States, he met a more moderate critical reaction, especially from white male critics, although he still recouped his investment – a rarity on Broadway.
âArtistically, I was doing things that I felt were so true to my impulses,â Hall says. “I actually felt very frustrated that what I was doing didn’t feel like it was respected the way I knew it should have been.”
Prestigious productions followed, as did other awards and a residency at the Signature Theater in New York. Yet the critical response to his work has remained mixed. “If you’re afraid of a certain type of black person, you’re going to be like, ‘I don’t know, this roomâ¦ I don’t understand it,'” she said. She finds that New York audiences can approach Southern stories and characters, especially black characters, with elitist attitudes, and she wants New York theaters to do more to develop a diverse audience, who will laugh with it, and not of his characters. But she never changed her stories to suit a predominantly white audience. His goal ? “I want to put you in the room with people you would never have invited into your own house.”
Then again, her biggest success – at least in financial terms – came in the story of a woman almost anyone would invite. 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 jukebox musical may seem overwhelming to some writers. But it wasn’t Hall’s experience, thanks in large part to Turner herself. âTina really didn’t want a sanitized version of her life,â Hall says. âShe wanted grain. She wanted to show the cost, the emotional cost, of what she went through. And I was like, ‘Ooh, I had you girl. It’s me. I can get you the truth all day.
Hall didn’t find the Broadway version to play much differently than the West End, although she does admit that she did a better job of attracting black ticket buyers. âI love that our black actors and actresses got the chance to watch the audience and see themselves reflected,â she says.
She thinks it’s especially important for Adrienne Warren, who received a Tony nomination for her turn as Tina. âShe performs a trauma every night,â says Hall. âIt’s traumatic for her. Being able to see that you are not performing black trauma in front of a sea full of white faces 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, takes place at the Pynk, a black-owned, stiletto-heeled strip club in the Mississippi Delta. Without itching or excuse, he focuses on the women who work there, retracing their lives on and off the pole. âAs black and queer female characters tell it almost entirely, this is one of the best new TV shows of the year,â the Guardian reviewer wrote.
Although she tasted the wider influence of television and its financial rewards, Hall did not give up the theater. âI consider the theater to be a church. It’s a sanctuary, âshe said. “Being able to put these characters in a room where you breathe the same air, it feels so real – more real sometimes than the television.” And she thinks it can be more transformative too. “There is something about a theatrical experience that attaches to your mind and heart in a way that television cannot necessarily do.”
Hall wants to have a play performed every year, although the pandemic, which she spent with her young children, has slowed her productivity somewhat. His work depends on his ability to find a quiet place to hear the voices of his characters. âThere is no silence because I am at home with children,â she says.
But the theater has experienced its own kind of silence over the past year, which has started to take into account what the art form is and who can create it, witness it, benefit from it. Hall believes that not much has changed so far, certainly not enough.
âThe fact that most white men still run the show is wrong,â she said. “We can use our imaginations to think of anything, any world, and yet in the theater we are sometimes a more faithful representation of white supremacy than even some white supremacists.” And yet she still hopes for a fairer and more just theater – a theater that invites everyone home.