Most Memphians probably won’t recognize the name cut into the wall over the door leading to the new Hattiloo Theatre’s smaller black box theater. It’s not one of the corporate donors or lifetime philanthropists whose names tend to appear in such places. Katori Hall is a 33-year-old Craigmont High graduate and an internationally acclaimed playwright, whose provocative work is often set in parts of Memphis that most local theatergoers have only seen at a distance, if at all.
It was a steamy afternoon in June 2010, when I first met Katori Hall at the Little Pie Shop in Hell’s Kitchen. Memphis had invaded New York that summer. Broadway was buzzing with news about Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s Memphis, which had won the Tony for best new musical only a week before. Around the corner, at the Nederlander Theater, Million Dollar Quartet introduced audiences to Sun Studio founder Sam Phillips, who shared his spotlight with Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Off Broadway, in Manhattan’s Garment District, Sister Myotis’ Bible Camp, a Steve Swift/Voices of the South creation, enjoyed full and appreciative houses at the Abingdon Theatre. And there I was in the middle of it all, having pie with Hall, who didn’t have a play in New York at the moment but was keeping busy. Her play The Mountaintop had just won London’s Olivier Award for best new work, and Hall was gearing up for its 2011 Broadway launch, with Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett in leading roles.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t think I would be a playwright,” Hall said, listing school trips to see regional staples like Ballet Memphis’ The Nutcracker and Circuit Playhouse’s production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe among her few brushes with live performance outside of church.
“The unfortunate thing about Memphis is that there wasn’t a lot of new theater being done,” Hall continued. “Most regional theaters need a stamp of approval to say that a play is good, even if the play has nothing to do with that community’s experience.” Hall said she’d love to bring new plays home to workshop, but she didn’t know where she could take them.
When I asked if she knew about the Hattiloo Theatre and its ambitious founding director, Ekundayo Bandele, Hall twisted her face into a mask of skepticism.
“That guy’s not from Memphis. He’s from Brooklyn,” she said, not so much dismissing Bandele as she was dismissing the idea that any New York poser had half a chance in her hometown.
That was then.
In the years since, Bandele’s Hattiloo Theatre has produced The Mountaintop, in conjunction with Circuit Playhouse, and resurrected an infamous Memphis housing project for the landmark production of Hall’s ensemble drama, Hurt Village. When Bandele’s new 10,000-square-foot facility opens its doors in Overton Square later this month, the young playwright’s name will be there, just spitting distance from Circuit Playhouse, where Hall once handed out programs in order to see A Tuna Christmas for free.
“She’s giving back,” says Bandele, thrilled to have Hall participating in such a meaningful way.
Over the years, the Hattiloo’s founding executive director, who grew up splitting time between Brooklyn and North Memphis, has insisted that he doesn’t only want to produce plays that have a preexisting stamp of approval. He doesn’t want the next August Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry to fall between the cracks, and he doesn’t want another Katori Hall to graduate high school in Memphis having only been exposed to A Tuna Christmas and other plays that have nothing to do with her experience.
“She is making some serious waves in the theater world, and she’s going to be a writer in residence,” Bandele says of Hall. “In 2015, we’re going to do a play called Saturday Night/Sunday Morning.”
Bandele describes that production as a world premiere, although an earlier version of the show was produced in Chicago.
Set in a Memphis beauty parlor, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning is a period drama telling the story of a group of young African-American women during the last days of WWII.
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