As she readies a new work for Arena Stage, playwright Katori Hall muses on the importance of new dramatic voices and the fabric of families.
Through her writing, playwright Katori Hall says that she represents the stories of black women.
Raised in Memphis, Tennessee, playwright Katori Hall is burning up the boards with the dramatic legacy of the New South. In 2010, she became the first black woman to win the Olivier Award for Best New Play for The Mountaintop, a fictional depiction of a conversation between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a maid at the Lorraine Hotel the night before King’s assassination. A member of Arena Stage’s inaugural class of American Voices New Play resident playwrights, Hall recently sat down with Capitol File to discuss the world premiere of The Blood Quilt, an all-female ensemble piece about family and inheritance.
This fall, 44 theater companies are committed to presenting new works by women, and Arena Stage is at the vanguard. Four of its nine shows this season are premieres, including The Blood Quilt. New plays are everything. Yes, everyone does Shakespeare, the oldies and the goodies. You have to do A Raisin in the Sun—it is beautiful, perfect. But we need to make room for the new Lorraine Hansberrys. Often, new plays are seen as a risk. There’s an assumption that theatergoers are older and don’t want to see new plays, but that’s not the case. They are hungry to be revitalized by the new.
Tell us about The Blood Quilt. I reckon I’ve been working on this story all my life. The quilting bee becomes a reading of the recently deceased mother’s will, and the drama ensues as the sisters need to decide what things they need to keep in order to move into their lives’ third act.
Why quilting? My grandmother is a great quilter. She grew up in a sharecropper’s family. She gathered other people’s scraps to make her art. She has an uncanny eye for quality, color, and form. Quilting is her outlet, much like writing is mine. She showed me a quilt she’s been working on for 68 years—wind cannot get through these stitches. I had to have a story in my repertoire about how you can put your past into the cloth to get it out of yourself.
You are the youngest of four sisters. How much of this story is your own? The play is not just influenced by the interactions I have with my sisters. My mom and dad both have a lot of sisters, and I wanted to put that onstage: the language of women who come together to be uplifted by their sisters—blood relatives or metaphorical sisters. As we grow older our friends become our sisters. This is my anti-August Wilson play: I wanted to put a bunch of women onstage and let them speak.
Recently Cicely Tyson said finding roles as an older black woman is a struggle. You trained as an actress—are you writing for yourself? I am writing to tell black women’s stories. We are being erased—quite literally in the streets. Not being represented is a murder as well. I can combat the seemingly un-combatable struggle by representing the stories of black women.
You are 33. How do you get it all done? I recently had a come-to-Jesus moment, and realized it was time for a personal assistant. I was beginning to operate on the edge of myself: I have a new play in my life; the greatest creation of all, a child; and I’m rehearsing two plays. I must say my husband is the only reason I can write so much. You have to marry the right man, but if you don’t, you find the right day care or the right caretaker. Women find the help they need. The Blood Quilt runs April 24–June 7 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, 202-488-3300