From the moment Samuel L. Jackson made his Broadway debut as Martin Luther King Jr. in her play The Mountaintop, also starring Angela Bassett, back in 2011, Katori Hall, just 30 at the time, became a recognized player in contemporary American theater. In London, where the play was produced in 2009, the Columbia University grad was already a big deal and even became the first black woman to win England’s coveted Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2010.
Since then, several of Hall’s plays have been produced. One, Hurt Village, set in her native Memphis, Tenn., will also mark her feature-film debut later this year. But Hall isn’t leaving the American stage. This season alone, she has three world premieres. First up is The Blood Quilt, at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, where Hall, now 33, is an inaugural resident playwright in its American Voices New Play Institute.
Running from April 24 to June 7 (with a spectacular May 7 opening-night celebration featuring honorary chair Phylicia Rashad), The Blood Quilt centers on the four disconnected Jernigan sisters: Amber, Cassan, Gio and Clementine (played respectively by Meeya Davis, Nikiya Mathis, Caroline Clay and Tonye Patano, best known as Heylia James on Showtime’s Weeds). After their mother’s death, the sisters, along with Cassan’s daughter Zambia (Afi Bijou), gather at their childhood coastal-Georgia home to create a family quilt honoring her, but a reading of the mother’s will only heightens tensions.
The Root caught up with Hall to discuss the genesis of this play, why she writes and more.
The Root: How did this play come about?
Katori Hall: From a research trip I took in 2009. Basically I was doing a project with the Royal Court Theatre in London, and they hired, like, five or seven writers all around the world to look at how Yoruba culture had sustained itself or had been able to be retained all around the world. And I was like, “Oh, I heard of the Gullah-Geechee people,” but I hadn’t done any research. So maybe they come from that part of the world, but I wasn’t entirely sure. So I ended up getting on a plane and going down and visiting this island called Sapelo Island, and they had a cultural weekend, and I just fell in love. It was so similar to what I had known as a young girl growing up in Memphis.
To me it’s kind of … reflective of how we as a people have been able to survive in this culture that tried to erase us, erase our language, erase our food ways, erase our names, but yet we’ve been able to hold on to it. But as I did the research, I found out that the linkage or the bridge to Africa wasn’t necessarily through Nigeria, but it was through Angola.
I did the genealogy on my family of my matrilineal line, and I found out that my great-great-great-great-grandmother was born in South Carolina. For some reason it just felt so familiar to me. I always say you don’t have to write what you know, you can write what you want to know, and I just wanted to know everything about these people because I felt so close to them on a lot of different levels. So that was my entry point in regards to the play.
TR: This play has five black actresses, which is unheard of. How did that come about?
KH: I come from a family of four sisters, and it’s a very interesting dynamic when you have four women who are the family makeup. But then all my aunts just got into quilting very recently, which is something that my grandmother, Big Mama, has been teaching me, so I kind of just use all this stuff that had kind of been floating in my life and my own experience and kind of, like, made this gumbo and created this new play.
TR: What inspired you to write plays?
KH: I ended up catching the acting bug. … [I took] this acting class and [there was a] homework assignment, and our teacher [sent us] to the library [to find a scene to perform]. … Me and my scene partner, we’re, like, two young African-American women … we get to the library and we’re pulling out all kinds of plays and couldn’t find nothing—like, nothing … had any scenes with young black women in it . … So I went to the teacher and was like, “Do you have any suggestions, because we’re having a hard time,” and 10 seconds went by, 20 seconds went by, 40 seconds went by, and our professor could not think of an answer, and so, in that moment I said to myself, “I’m going to write those plays, then.”
TR: Where did you get the courage to write The Mountaintop?
KH: To me it wasn’t courage, maybe it was naivete [laughs], because I was like, “Aw, ain’t nobody goin’ produce this play? So I’m just going to write the play that I wanna write.” I never thought that this was going to go on Broadway with Angela Bassett and Sam Jackson. Just was not thinking that way at all. So I think because I kind of wrote it from that space with naivete comes fearlessness.
And I wanted to once again not write what I knew, but I wanted to write what I wanted to know, and I wanted to know more about King. Because I grew up in Memphis … I had always heard the rumors: “Oh, he’s flirtatious,” all that kind of gossip, street gossip, that the folks knew about, but it had not necessarily been put on a stage or necessarily put in a film, and … I was always intrigued by that.
TR: You actually tackled humanizing King before Selma. That was pretty bold.
KH: Well, I know he’s a man. I know he’s a human being … I know he’s complicated. People are people, so that kind of allowed me an entry point. And also, I came from the post-civil-rights-movement generation, even though I can’t even say “post-civil rights” because I think the civil rights movement is still happening. I guess I should say “post-’60s,” and for me, King wasn’t necessarily as saintly as my grandmother saw him—his picture is right next to Jesus in her house.
Growing up in Memphis—which I often refer to as Calvary because there was a kind of crucifixion that happened—that, unfortunately, placed King in a [position] where the movement happened because of him and just him. Unfortunately, I think it’s just really easy to pitch it that way in the history books, when, in all actuality, we know that movements are made of many, and that has, over the course of time, been manipulated and mishandled. And I think things like Mountaintop and … Selma kind of articulate the fact that King was just a man, and that women had as much to do with moving us forward in terms of civil rights issues as men. And I think it’s very interesting that both of those perspectives came from young black women.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.