As the Lyric Stage Company opens up its production of Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, playwright Katori Hall talks about her unconventional journey, Memphis as her muse, and making history as the first black woman to win an Olivier Award for Best Play for The Mountaintop—before even turning 30.
The Mountaintop was a hit on Broadway with Angela Bassett and Samuel L Jackson, and dozens of productions are now popping up worldwide.
Fresh off her first go at film, Hall just finished shooting for Arkabutla in Memphis.
Saturday Night/Sunday Morning is a hysterically funny, achingly beautiful play about a group of women in a Memphis beauty parlor/boarding house during the final days of World War II. They are unsure about what their futures hold or if their men will make it back, but along the way they forge new relationships and discover new things about themselves.
How was your foray into filmmaking?
It was challenging, but in a very inspiring way. I am definitely wanting to do more.
Had you had any sort of experience in film at all?
No. I actually feel like it’s natural to me. Even when I’m writing plays, there’s a movie that I’m watching in my head, and so I thought, “Well, maybe I should actually write a movie and stop playing around here.” I feel like my characters are often very hyper-verbal, so to pull back on that end and trust that a story would be told just by watching it unfold has been a very interesting exercise for me as a writer.
Do you think that will affect the way you write your next play?
No, I think I’ll probably be even wordier because I’ll be like, “Oh my god, now I can talk as much as I want!”
Your path to playwriting wasn’t very conventional. How did you go from studying African American studies and journalism (at Columbia) to acting (at Harvard) to playwriting (at Juilliard)? What were those transitions like?
Oh, my journey, my journey! This is the thing: I feel as though I needed to go through all of those steps in order to become the kind of playwright that I am. To major in African American studies, I was basically studying the world: the context, social, cultural of the characters that I wanted to put on stage. So for me, African American studies was preparing me for this particular career, I just didn’t know it then. But then, you know, I ended up catching the acting bug. I was taking acting classes and kind of coming up against this very frustrating reality where my teacher told us to go to the library and find a play that had a scene for you and your scene partner’s type. I happened to be partnered with another young black woman, so you have these two young black women going to the library and we were just unable to find a play that had a scene for us. So we go back to our teacher and we ask her for suggestions, and 20 seconds went by… 30 seconds went by… 40 seconds went by, and she could not think of a play that had a scene for two young black women. And that’s when I decided that I was going to write the play. I have to write plays where there’s just a wall of women on stage, and it doesn’t matter the time period or where they are; I just always wanted to tell the particular experience of being a young black Southern women. Saturday Night/Sunday Morning really exemplifies that mission statement.
You’ve said that the reward for you is less about an award or a trophy and more about what you’re able to share with an audience and what you’re able to make an audience feel. You had seen this void, you start writing plays, and you become the first black woman to win an Olivier Award for Best Play. That’s quite…
Quite a journey! [laughs]
You said you were going to do it, and you not only do it, but you make history. How does that make you feel?
You know what, it was kind of surreal. I didn’t think much of it! And I know that sounds crazy, but for me, I looked at the accolades, the attention, as an opportunity to shed more light on the other work, and on these other plays. For me, it was just part of a longer trajectory. Even though it felt really good—especially the night they say your name and Jude Law hands you your award—but then you kind of settle the next day and you’re like, “I’m being used for something.” The accolades have been an opportunity to achieve two goals: of writing roles for men and women of color and also bringing in an audience that do not look like the traditional theatergoing audience.
But did it, in some way, validate the work you had been doing?
I know it’s very weird, but it did not, because I do know that traditionally those awards tend to be from a place or come from a group of people who do not necessarily look like me. I was taught from a young age not to try to seek validation from places and groups of people that have traditionally excluded you from the story or from the narrative. And so I don’t even have the Olivier—the Olivier is at home in Memphis with my mom.
Would you say that Memphis is your muse?
Oh, definitely! I find that it’s very hard to see an authentic Southern experience, and the opportunity that I get to tell these really amazing, complex stories about a city that I think has been extremely misunderstood—it’s just an honor.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard a story about what black people were experiencing as a result of World War II.
I know! [sarcastically] There may have been a movie, but I don’t think so.
Was World War II always the setting?
Definitely. If I’m writing about something, I want to write something that I want to learn more about. WWII was always a little wonky in my head for some reason—like I always knew about the Hitler part, but the actual beat-by-beat of how it happened and the timing and the consequence of it, and to really linger on the last months of it, I thought was just a really interesting, dramatic parenthesis, because it took people time to come home.
They really had to take care of themselves.
Absolutely. But they’re forced to become a sisterhood because all the men are gone. Not only did this happen to black women, it also happened to white women. Like you said: Who has done that? When has that story been told? And I decided it was a really awesome opportunity to tell a story that had a very unique perspective, but that happened, but no one knew happened. That’s the problem with history and the narrative: People can be erased. Whole experiences can be erased if someone doesn’t write them down.