Doubting Thomases will have to work extra hard to unpack and explain away the events of Our Lady of Kibeho, a world premiere play by Katori Hall (Hurt Village) at Signature Theatre. The author doesn’t do any of the heavy lifting for you…and that’s a good thing. Hall’s brilliant play, a simultaneously straightforward yet clear-eyed presentation of a recent bit of Catholic mysticism, leaves you grasping for answers and straining for connections days after the final blackout.

The play is based on the true story of three Rwandan girls who, in 1982, claimed to see and speak with the Virgin Mary. These “Marian apparitions” have since received Vatican approval. Many view them as a prescient warning about the 1994 Rwandan genocide that resulted in the murder of nearly 1,000,000 people.

Scenic designer Rachel Hauck uses the full breadth of the stage to lavishly create the Catholic girls school where the apparitions take place, a cluster of little stucco houses with bright blue doors. They unfold like dollhouses as the scenes require.

The story begins in one such house, the office of the school’s head priest, Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera). He’s having a heated discussion with head nun Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford) about one of the students, Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor). Alphonsine claims to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. Evangelique thinks she’s a blasphemous liar, but Tuyishime is not so sure. They bicker like they’re in a Rwandan production of Doubt until Tuyishime pulls rank with Sister Evangelique (men always trump women in the church) and decides to handle Alphonsine’s punishment himself.

Yet when the apparitions spread to another girl, Anathalie (Mandi Masden), Evangelique takes matters into her own hands and encourages the school bully, Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango) to go after the two Tutsi visionaries. Marie-Claire whips the mostly Hutu students into a frenzy against them. (Ethnic tension between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, the source of the 1994 genocide, underscores the events of the play.) Amazingly, however, even Marie-Claire succumbs to Mary’s irresistible charm in a first-act finale that is more exciting and frenetic than most musicals on Broadway.

Okafor, Masden, and Kalukango give staggering performances during their trancelike visitations, complete with zombielike prayer, writhing, and speaking in tongues. As the hard-as-nails head nun, Benford champions our disbelief until the author makes her doubt untenable. Even after that, Odera compellingly embodies a far more complicated angst: not wanting to believe, in spite of all the evidence. The prophecy the girls bear is just too terrible to get behind. “Is it so easy to believe visions of violence when they fall from African lips?” Tuyishime incredulously asks Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), a visiting emissary from the Vatican.

Flavia has come to investigate the validity of the visions. “I should have been a lawyer,” the professional skeptic muses before embarking on a series of gruesome medical examinations and grueling tests of faith. He’s there to make sure that everything the girls do and say is in compliance with Catholic doctrine, very much like an intellectual property attorney advocating for his brand

It’s only in relation to this proprietary attitude toward faith that the specter of doubt creeps into the play. Alphonsine rejects two central tenets of Catholic belief: the trinity (one God, three persons) and transubstantiation (the belief that bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ during Holy Communion). Flavia wonders why the blessed mother would choose such an ignorant vessel for her message. In light of that, Bishop Gahamanyi (a distressingly pompous and cynical Brent Jennings) pressures Father Tuyishime to coach her on basic Catholicism, reasoning that if her visions are confirmed by the Vatican, Kibeho stands to cash in big from the flood of pilgrims buying Catholic merchandise.

And flood they do. Under the energetic direction of Michael Greif, a cast of thousands (or so it seems) create a biblical tone during the girls’ public appearances, full of violence and confusion. Greif stages these scenes in the aisle dividing the audience, making us feel like we’re in an immersive DeMille epic. “Nobody wants to see the Bishop,” a member of the rabble shouts as the prelate drones on. “I want to hear the visionaries.” As these fervent masses turn away from the conventional church and toward their new prophets, you can almost sense Edward G. Robinson egging them on from behind.

And like DeMille, Greif offers up plenty of fire and brimstone. Ben Stanton (lights) and Matt Tierney (sound) create an epic onstage storm, including wind blowing through our hair. Projection designer Peter Nigrini flashes terrifying visions of death and destruction across the stage as the girls recite their apocalyptic prophecy.

Committed skeptics will dismiss the whole thing as well-informed intuition. (In an environment steeped in tribal animosity, is it really that remarkable to predict the hills will “run red with blood”?) Yet Hall wisely refuses to let her audience leave the theater wearing a grin of smug satisfaction. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you remember a scene or encounter that calls your version of the truth into question. Our Lady of Kibeho is the rare play that leaves the faithful questioning their faith and the doubtful questioning their doubt.

 

 

Written on November 26th, 2014 , Media


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Written on November 24th, 2014 , Events, Media, New Productions

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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Written on November 24th, 2014 , Media

Time Out says

Posted: Mon Nov 17 2014

Our Lady of Kibeho. Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Katori Hall. Directed by Michael Greif. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.

Our Lady of Kibeho: In brief

Katori Hall (Hurt Village) continues her Signature residency with a drama set in rural Rwanda in 1981, where a schoolgirl claims to have seen the Virgin Mary. Upheaval follows. Michael Greif (Rent) directs.

Our Lady of Kibeho: Theater review by Adam Feldman

Faith is contagious at Katori Hall’s thrilling new play, Our Lady of Kibeho.In a remote Rwandan village in 1981, barefoot teenager Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) claims to have seen the Virgin Mary. Her peers at school, including the domineering Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango), are skeptical—it doesn’t help that Alphonsine is Tutsi, whereas the others are mostly Hutu—as are the kindly Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera) and the perpetually cross Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford). But a second girl, Anathalie (Mandi Masden), soon shares Alphonsine’s holy vision and then a third girl, and word of their prophecy starts reaching their town. Are they liars or hysterics? Are they witches or possessed? Or could they be telling a truth that no one, including the variously vested interests of the Church, wants to hear?

Like Hall’s Hurt Village, Our Lady of Kibeho is unabashedly wide in scale and traditional in approach (though it veers in surprising directions). In a welcome change from the stingy dramatic economy of many new plays, this one wants to wow you, and it does. There are 15 very fine actors in Michael Greif’s sterling production at the Signature and moments of wonderful stagecraft, including a breathtaking Act I finale. (The second act draws gasps of its own, notably when a world-wearied Vatican investigator, played by the invaluable T. Ryder Smith, interrogates the girls.) At times, Our Lady of Kibeho suggests an inside-out version of The Crucible, and like Arthur Miller’s classic, it resounds beyond its own plot; questions of poverty, sexism and interethnic tension echo throughout the story. Hall’s passionate play renews belief in what theater can do: It awakens you into a trance.—Theater review by Adam Feldman

THE BOTTOM LINE Hall casts light on what we may not choose to see

 

Written on November 24th, 2014 , Media

A story of faith and doubt after the Virgin Mary appears to a trio of Rwandan schoolgirls.

“MOST IMPORTANT NEW PLAY OF THE YEAR!”


By 

TERRY TEACHOUT

New York

Christianity is the great blind spot of American theater. Most Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of heaven and hell—but in most American plays, these beliefs are treated either as proofs of invincible ignorance or as signs of black-hearted villainy. It says everything about the gap between who we are in life and how we look onstage that the best-known shows of the past decade in which religious believers of any sort figured prominently were “The Book of Mormon” and “Doubt.” So it is stop-press news that the most important new play of the year to date, Katori Hall’s “Our Lady of Kibeho,” not only tells the story of a modern miracle but dares to suggest that it might really have happened.

Actually, it’s not quite right to say that “Our Lady of Kibeho” is about a miracle. Rather, its subject is what is known to theologians as an “apparition.” In 1981 and 1982, three Rwandan schoolgirls, all of them devout Catholics, claimed to have seen and heard the Virgin Mary. Their last apparition was a terrible vision of apocalyptic violence that was later interpreted as a prophecy of the genocidal convulsion in which, a decade later, as many as a million Rwandans died at the hands of their fellow countrymen. The Catholic Church subsequently investigated these apparitions and declared them in 2001 to be “authentic.”

Our Lady of Kibeho  (Irene Diamond Stage, Pershing Square Signature Center, Through Dec. 7) is the stuff of high drama, and Ms. Hall has used it thrillingly well, shaping the real-life story of the girls of Kibeho (one of whom was later killed in the Kibeho Massacre of 1995) into a tightly written play that places a chokehold on your attention right from the opening line. It’s tempting to say that you can’t go wrong with material like this, but part of what makes “Our Lady of Kibeho” so impressive is that Ms. Hall circumvents all kinds of possible dramaturgical pitfalls along the way. Yes, the play has a political background, one that she sketches with crisp efficiency—but “Our Lady of Kibeho” never turns into a rant. Instead of lecturing us about tribal sectarianism in Africa, Ms. Hall sticks to her story: What did the girls claim to see, and did they see it?

Ms. Hall and Michael Greif, the director, have opted to show the girls’ visions onstage, leaving it to you to decide whether they were fantasies. No spoilers here: I’ll say only that it’s been a long time since any playwright rang down her first-act curtain with a louder bang. Just as surprising, though, is her willingness to work on a large scale. “Our Lady of Kibeho” calls for a cast of 15, huge by present-day standards, and Mr. Greif’s staging, if not quite monumental, is most definitely grand in its theatrical effects (including a climactic crowd scene that makes cunning use of the audience). Much credit goes to Rachel Hauck, one of our best set designers, for constructing a stage-filling Catholic girls’ school in the Rwandan countryside that looks real without stooping to rigidly literal realism.

Nneka Okafor, Mandi Masden and Joaquina Kalukango play the three visionaries so convincingly that you’ll soon forget that they are, in fact, seasoned actors: They behave just like giggling schoolgirls who’ve been invaded and tra

nsformed by the supernatural. Owiso Odera, Starla Benford and Brent Jennings are likewise credible as the school’s head priest and nun and the town bishop, the last of whom is properly skeptical of the girls but no less aware of what it might mean were his impoverished diocese to be recognized as the site of a miracle.

The most interesting performance is, not surprisingly, elicited by the most interesting character. Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) is an investigative priest dispatched from Rome by the Holy See to determine whether Alphonsine, Anathalie and Marie-Claire are anything more than hysterical teenagers. Having exposed a few too many phony miracles for his soul’s good, he has become a doubter in spite of himself: “Belief in the impossible trumps even the power of believing in God, which is in itself quite impossible.” Mr. Smith gets him so right that you’ll be thrilled by the soft-spoken subtlety of his impersonation.

As for the play itself, one keeps waiting for Ms. Hall to lapse into the sniggering condescension with which the enlightened skeptic regards benighted believers—but it never happens. To be sure, one or two of her characterizations are obvious, especially that of the head nun, who smacks a bit too much of the cranky Hollywood-style Mother Superior. Nevertheless, the personalities and experiences of all of the characters, like their faith, are presented with complete seriousness.

So…did it happen? You’ll have to make up your own mind about that. But if you’re a gambler, take a flier on Ms. Hall to nail next year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama. I didn’t care for “The Mountaintop,” her last play, but “Our Lady of Kibeho” is the kind of issue-driven, ethnically flavored story that the Pulitzer judges love—and it also happens to be one hell of an exciting show. That’s a miracle all by itself.

 

 

Written on November 24th, 2014 , Media

Mysteries of Heaven and Earth

‘Our Lady of Kibeho,’ a Katori Hall Drama Set in the 1980s

NYT Critics’ Pick

By  NOV. 16, 2014

 

 

A scene from “Our Lady of Kibeho” with, from left, Nneka Okafor, Bowman Wright, Mandi Masden and Starla Benford. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

The teenage girl, a young 17, seems incapable of deception. Her voice rises into a bright squeal when she becomes excited. Her eyes have a limpid clarity that suggests no subterfuge. She is docile and abashed by authority, even though her bubbly nature keeps her long, elegant limbs in constant nervous motion. She doesn’t even wear shoes.

And yet the claims of Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) are outlandish, even in the setting of a Catholic girls school. She says she sees visions of the Virgin Mary, who speaks to her when she is in a trance, filling her spirit with both joy and fear, and telling of events Alphonsine cannot possibly otherwise know.

“Our Lady of Kibeho,” a transfixing new play by Katori Hall that opened on Sunday night at the Signature Theater, explores the turbulent ramifications of Alphonsine’s visions as other girls begin experiencing them, and news of the phenomenon spreads beyond the school into the Rwandan village of the title, in 1981 and 1982. The play has the gripping intensity of a thriller, in part because pricking at the edge of our consciousness throughout is the knowledge of the horror that engulfed the country a little more than a decade after the events in the play take place.

 

Owiso Odera plays a priest and Nneka Okafor a schoolgirl in “Our Lady of Kibeho.”CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ms. Hall, the author of “Hurt Village” and “Children of Killers,” about the survivors of the Rwanda genocide, has an assured sense of dramatic pacing, an ability to evoke a foreign culture with vivid specificity, and an unusual affinity for subject matter that blends history and mystery. (“The Mountaintop,” her somewhat hokey Broadway play about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had a supernatural element.) The events depicted in “Our Lady of Kibeho” actually took place, although Ms. Hall has taken some license to stoke the dramatic fires.

Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera), the priest who runs the school, and Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), the head nun, try to quash Alphonsine’s excited talk of her visions. They are worried that the school will come under scrutiny, and their fears are eventually realized.

He’s more sympathetic, assuming that Alphonsine is just a devout girl carried away by her enthusiasm, and the heat. While he gives her some light punishment for telling her “tall tales,” he also cannot help asking if, in these supposed visions of hers, the Virgin was “muzungu” — meaning white.

The more stern Sister Evangelique seethes with outrage, and enlists Marie-Claire (Joaquina Kalukango), a leader of the girls — partly through her seniority, at 21 — to help quell these blasphemous doings. Sister Evangelique encourages Marie-Claire to pinch Alphonsine when she falls into one of her trances, and later to burn her with a candle if that doesn’t work.

Coloring their reactions to Alphonsine’s claims are the deep-rooted divisions in the culture that, when they crop up in the dialogue, send shivers down the spine. Alphonsine is a Tutsi; Sister Angelique a Hutu. “Tutsis lie,” says one of the girls who follow the lead of Marie-Claire, as they harass Alphonsine. “That’s what my ma said.” Alphonsine’s bitter retort: “Well, maybe that is proof that Hutus lie.”

A scene from Katori Hall’s play about group of Rwandan schoolgirls who see a vision of the Virgin Mary. The show is at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Shortly after this tart exchange, Alphonsine falls into another trance, sliding to her knees and lifting her arms in a gesture suggesting a radiant embrace. Ms. Okafor’s extraordinary transformation, from a defensive schoolgirl one moment to a mute, enraptured figure who almost seems to glow with spiritual radiance, has an arresting authenticity.

As the other girls watch in fascination or fear or scorn — or all three — suddenly one of them, Anathalie (Mandi Masden), also swoons into a trance, to the horror of the others, and the outrage of Marie-Claire in particular. “Come back,” she insists, as Anathalie seems to be transported, neither seeing nor hearing.

“Our Lady of Kibeho” may at first seem to be a study in the contagion of religious mania and its ability to take hold in deeply religious or superstitious cultures. Eventually, a third girl begins seeing visions, and as news of this spreads, the town and eventually the country boil with excitement. But both the play and the production, directed with equal measures of sensitivity and theatrical flair by Michael Greif, favor a sympathetic, not to say credulous, view of the events.

Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), an emissary from the Vatican, arrives to authenticate or discredit the girls as “visionaries.” He is skeptical, or maybe just racist. He finds it unlikely that the Virgin Mary would appear to girls in “the jungle,” as he describes Rwanda, to Father Tuyishime’s seething anger. “There is a saying in our country,” he says proudly. “Rwanda is so beautiful that even God goes on vacation here.” (That’s another moment that chills.)

Father Flavia tests the girls’ knowledge of scripture — apparently the Virgin Mary only appears to A students — and is inclined to be dismissive until suddenly Anathalie begins speaking to him in fluent Italian, referring eerily to events in his own past. (We witness a feat right out of a horror movie that would tend to support the girls’ visitations.)

The acting is across-the-board superb. Ms. Okafor’s gentle-spirited Alphonsine and Ms. Masden’s more starchy Anathalie are delicately etched portraits of girls who are at once young for their age and, as they come under fire, quickly gain emotional maturity. Ms. Kalakungo is also terrific as Marie-Claire, whose antipathy takes a surprising turn. As Sister Evangelique, Ms. Benford brims with righteous fury at what she sees as mere witchcraft, but eventually we watch in sympathy as her own spiritual foundation is shaken; there’s some envy in her anger at the girls. Why them, God, and not her?

Both as written and directed, with special effects by Greg Meeh, “Our Lady of Kibeho” all but affirms the reality of the girls’ experience. But even if, after the play has finished, you return to your comfortable skepticism, as you watch it Ms. Hall’s drama has an eerie fascination. Suspending our disbelief for a while is among the primal pleasures of theatergoing. Here it is thoroughly enjoyable, at least until the girls’ visions turn dark, when it becomes deeply disturbing.

 

Our Lady of Kibeho

By Katori Hall; directed by Michael Greif; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Ben Stanton; sound by Matt Tierney; projections by Peter Nigrini; music and music direction by Michael McElroy; special effects design by Greg Meeh; aerial effects design by Paul Rubin; fight director, Rick Sordelet; dialect coach, Dawn-Elin Fraser; production stage manager, Michael McGoff; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Gilbert Medina; director of production, Paul Ziemer. Presented by Signature Theater, James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org. Through Dec. 7. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

WITH: Starla Benford (Sister Evangelique), Niles Fitch (Emmanuel), Brent Jennings (Bishop Gahamanyi), Joaquina Kalukango (Marie-Claire Mukangango), Mandi Masden (Anathalie Mukamazimpaka), Owiso Odera (Father Tuyishime), Nneka Okafor (Alphonsine Mumureke), Stacey Sargeant (a Reporter), T. Ryder Smith (Father Flavia), Bowman Wright (Nkango), and Jade Eshete, Danaya Esperanza, Stacey Sargeant and Angel Uwamahoro (Students) and Kambi Gathesha, Irungu Mutu, Ms. Eshete, Ms. Esperanza, Ms. Sargeant and Ms. Uwamahoro (Villagers).

 

Written on November 21st, 2014 , Media, Uncategorized
Aleim

Theater’s Hottest New Voices On Why The Great White Way Is Not the Holy Grail

An interview by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, Playwright to Playwright
Photographed by James Graham


“They were just warm and vulnerable and embraced this moment, in a way I’ve never seen it. It’s the talk back I loved the most. It felt like a really safe space where a lot of them, most of them young, talked about religion, race…”

Playwright Katori Hall is not speaking about her Broadway debut of the play “The Mountaintop” which opened last fall starring Samuel L Jackson as Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and co-starring Angela Basset as a sweet, sharp and fast-potty-mouthed maid in room 306, the Lorraine Hotel, on the eve of King’s assassination.

No, while we speak, nestled into an empty dressing room, the technical rehearsal for that production goes on like a jazz riff over the dressing room speakers.

Katori Hall is speaking, dreamily, of a reading of “The Mountaintop” that happened in Russia.

“Russian audiences are really reserved.’

Hall learned this from her trip there in 2004 when, as a first year actor in graduate school, she was required to learn Russian and work with the Moscow Art Theater School. The experience, Katori noted, was riddled with racial tensions spurred a month earlier by an ambush of a black student by ‘skinheads’ while police unwilling to help simply watched. That story, and the sighting of Swastikas painted outside her dormitory walls, shook Hall and she ‘vowed never to return.’ But return she did, and with a play fictionalizing a history of violence and race in America.

‘They were authentic to the moment and the truth of the moment. It allowed for an interesting conversation about leadership. Where it comes from? That’s the sort of talk back I want to have in America.”

Ms. Hall is getting her chance.

Her play “Mountaintop” did a 360-lap around the world, starting first as a reading/workshop at the Lark Development Play Development Center. The Lark also awarded Hall the PONY Award, which allowed her a year of free housing in a one bedroom, doorman’d apartment in the heart of the theater district in New York City.

From the Lark, the play moved to Theatre 503, a small theater in London that sat directly over a pub. Ms Hall was quoted as saying ‘Well, OK, all great theatre is done above a pub.’

From there, Mountaintop transferred to Trafalgar Studios on London’s West End starring David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs, and won Ms. Hall the Oliver Award that year for best new play. She made history, becoming the first black woman to receive that award.

Then there were various readings of the play around the world, and finally the stop in Russia again thanks to the Lark Center.

“It was perfect; supposedly there are two actors of color being hired In Russia and they just happened to be perfect ages. In a weird way sometimes I say that was a perfect version. The guy (actor) was really short. And king was like 5’6 or something. It was kind of remarkable Even though they were using these Slavic syllables to put forth my lilting southern dialogue.”

Shortly after winning the Olivier, the play was signed for a Broadway run by producers Jean Domounain and Sonia Friedman.

And all of this took place before she turned 30.

“I’m 30, look 20, and act five,” she laughs

Don’t let her contagious guffaw and her trickster smile fool you.
Katori Hall is even-tempered and easy to get along with. Too, she’s beautiful. High cheekbones, a head full of curly locks that she tosses up and down at a whim. Her easy self-deprecation and light Memphis cadence could lead you to believe her a high-fiving happy-go-lucky. Instead, Ms Hall is a focused woman in the business of creating complex portraits of herself and the world around her.

“I want to be emerging always. I’m in a transitional period with my identity
I’m a young black woman but who is Katori Hall beyond that?”

Raised in Memphis Tennessee, Hall was the youngest of 4. She began working as an actor at a young age. She recounts having Dreams of New York and a life far away. So it should come as no surprise when asked what her favorite role would be she mentions Anton Chekov’s play ‘Three Sisters’, a classic drama about three siblings who long for a life that is quickly slipping away from them.

“I saw their experience in my family; related on a human level. We had an Olga and a Masha. I wanted to be one of three sisters in Chekov’s beautiful play.”

At Columbia, Ms. Hall thought she might have a chance to play Irina the youngest sister who dreams of a chance to move to Moscow. But she was met with a roadblock and didn’t get the part.

“I was killing Irina. I thought I was tearing that audition up. And I confronted the head of the department who was directing the play and she said she wanted all of the family to look alike. Oh I get it,” Katori said. “You don’t want three sistuhs.”

We laugh but the wound was serious. And met with complimentary pangs.

“I ended up taking this acting class (while at Columbia) and our assignment was to take your acting partner, my acting partner just happened to be another young black woman, and find roles for your type and we pulled down so many plays.”

Finding not much hope, Katori and classmate turned to timely yet repeatedly-used classics. Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the sun”

“We can’t both play BENEATHA. And we too young to play MAMA.”

Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”
“Should we split the role of TITUBA?”

“We were frustrated and went back to class and we were like, ‘Becky, Becky Do you have any suggestions?’ That woman stood there… ten seconds went by, 20 seconds went by, 40 seconds went by.

In that moment when I saw my teacher silent I realized…If I really want to see myself in all my beauty and complexity staring back at me I would have to do it myself.”

And do it she did. After graduating from Columbia Katori enrolled in the American Repertory Theatre Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University, and from there the Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace playwriting program.

“Since I left school I’ve written about ten plays that are at various stages of the process. “

THE WORK

There is Hoodoo love, which was developed and premiered at the Cherry Lane Theater under the mentorship of Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer Prize winner for her play “Ruined.” Hoodoo Love is a blues-rich heartbreaking depiction of a young black woman, “Toulou,” in late depression era Memphis, Tennessee. Time out called the play ‘a major debut by a playwright with a spring in her step, as well as kick.’ Katori calls it a search for her song:

“I was writing about myself. I had moved to this city of dreams. Had my brush with romance.”

Like Toulou Hall wondered
“What do you make of negative energy how do you sublimate it?”

Hall called the experience writing Hoodoo
“Transformative: Okay I am a storyteller now.”

In early 2011 Katori was the recipient of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for her play “Hurt Village” a non-flinching look at life the Uptown projects in Memphis. Our guide through “Hurt Village” is COOKIE; a rapper in the making. 13-year-old COOKIE tries to navigate the changing landscape as a Hope Grant, designed to ‘transform’ pubic housing, threatens to relocate her, her mother CRANK and Great Grandmother BIG MAMA. This on the eve of a drawdown in American forces in Iraq, which, leads to the reappearance of COOKIE’S estranged soldier father BUGGY. “Hurt Village” is one of three plays by Hall that the Signature Theater in New York has guaranteed to produce as apart of her five-year residency.

Hall on “Hurt Village”
“It’s actually my favorite. Based on a real place. That movie ‘Blindside’ portrayed this community, made it seem as if every black man on the corner was the boogieman.
But there are complexities; there are stories there. I think the play is so layered and also fun. Its great hearing the ensemble come together to do it.”

Describing the growth and development of 13 year-old COOKIE in the world of the play, Hall smiles:

“Emotional growth could get stunted because you were forced to grow your own self up so fast.”

And then there’s “Pussy Valley”.

“Pussy Valley” is being birthed.” Katori says throwing her head back and laughs as thunder cracks over the speakers from the rehearsal stage downstairs. Katori hall is still a performer. She smiles as she begins to talk her newest play.

“I would go to those… you know in the subway what are they called you see ‘em… news stands and you see King magazine and the XXL and these Black and Latin women are just there basically naked and they have all these black bars over ‘em. But then right next to them in Elle are these white women, just as naked, but her beauty is something that is ultra feminine ideal, where as the black woman is just nasty so we have to cover her parts. What is that? Why is that? How can I articulate this difference while also being entertaining? Put them in a strip club and see what a black woman has to go through as she tries to express her sexuality. It’s like a cousin of “Hurt Village” peeling back sexuality as it pertains to the Black woman. It requires actors who can really pole dance.“

She smiles excitedly about this and looks really interested in the investigation. It seems that Katori Hall’s charge to add exciting and complex roles for black females in the American theater is a perfect fit; a job that she’s not only good at but fully enjoys. Her demeanor shifts when asked about finding actors for roles and the long struggle to cast “The Mountaintop” on Broadway.

“I’m just glad we got it cast and it’s going up. I ended up getting a lot of flack for casting these,” She uses air quotes, “stars in the show. Face book fights would break out about the casting. But I lucked out. They can do the part well and they have box office draw.”

Asked her why she thinks so many facebookers were offended
She shrugs. Purses her lips. Then in a knowing sigh answers, “Scarcity of roles. There are not a lot of roles. And performers think that Broadway is the Holy Grail, as if they aren’t anyone unless they perform on the Great White Way, and that’s unfortunate, I don’t think that’s true. I think some of the best theater is going on regionally, the best theater is happing off Broadway. I think People need to stop being myopic and stop feeling as though this defines success. It’s a part of it, these lights…”

If you watch her close you can see by her evenness and calm that Katori Hall is already thinking, planning, maybe penning her next plays, films, songs. She currently has three plays running: “Hurt Village” at the Signature Theater, “WHADDABLOODCLOT!!!” Which opened at the Williamstown Theater Festival, and “Children of Killers” about the Rwandan genocide, which opened Friday at the Castillo Theater on West 42nd Street in New York City. ‘She’s on to the next,’ as they say. But that doesn’t stop Samuel L and Angela Bassett from filling the dressing room with shouts of this marvelous playwright’s words. Over the din I ask.

What about your family? How do they feel about the work?

‘My mother has a response to this play (Mountaintop). She feels I got the story in an emotional way. I’m curious to see what they think of “Hurt Village”, though. I’m speaking for them and I’m interested in knowing if what I am saying is what they want an audience that don’t look like them to hear.

Angela Bassett’s lines beam through speakers: ‘Fuck the White man fuck ‘em… Oh I’m sorry Preacher King.’

Katori Hall smiles.

 

Written on October 9th, 2012 , Media, Uncategorized

The Ascent of Katori Hall

The Mountaintop scribe pulls no punches–and neither do her characters

By Alexis Soloski

The playwright Katori Hall has a voice like a luxury brand of caramel, sweet and rich and not a little salty. It has more than a dash of her Memphis upbringing—a high tone and a plush timbre with a tendency to lengthen short vowels into lush, long ones. The word “friend” becomes “freend,” pen becomes “peen.” During her MFA training in acting at the American Repertory Theater/Moscow Art Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training in Massachusetts, some instructors tried to neutralize her accent. Hall resisted.

“There are certain sounds I can’t let go of,” she says, settled on a bench in the sunny atrium of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, her masses of hair swirled into locks and looped beneath a bright orange head wrap. She describes her particular vocal inflections as her past, her heritage. “I have to carry that with me.”

Hall’s concern with preserving her own voice stands in contrast to the linguistic opulence and variety of her work, scripts swollen with songs, rhymes, taunts and prayers—from The Mountaintop, which made its American debut on Broadway in the fall of 2011, to Hurt Village, which played at the Signature Theatre Company in New York the following winter, to WHADDABLOODCLOT!!!, which premiered at Williamstown in August.

WHADDABLOODCLOT!!! centers on Eden Higginbotham, a Chanel-clad vixen who wakes from an ischemic stroke to find that her crisp, Ivy League inflections have been replaced by a thick Jamaican drawl, occasioning much confusion among all who see and hear her. Not only does Hall’s script switch between snappish Central Park tones and languid island patois, but she also writes for characters who speak in accents ranging from the relatively conventional (Spanglish, Southern U.S., Long Islandese) to the rather more particular and exotic (Senegalese, British/Hungarian, Czech/Australian/Russian). Even the brief Williamstown run required the services of two separate dialect coaches.

Though now 31 and a resident of polyglot upper Manhattan, Hall grew up without much exposure to such unusual intonations—or to much in the way of drama. The first play she ever saw, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which she attended on an elementary school field trip, “just made like a huge, huge, huge impression on me,” she recalls. But Memphis “wasn’t a huge theatre town,” and her schools lacked drama programs. Her sole role before college: Henny Penny in a kindergarten production of Chicken Little. “I forgot my line,” she remembers.

For theatricality, then, she looked first to athletics. “To me, sports are a kind of theatre,” Hall allows. “You don’t know what’s going to happen in the end, and that’s what the best plays are.” She credits the fight and drive of many of her characters to watching sports with her family. And on Sundays, she would attend church, listening to biblical stories enacted by her pastor, watching praise-dance troupes. That, she says, felt like theatre, too.

At Columbia University, which she attended on a full scholarship, Hall majored in African-American studies with a concentration in creative writing. There she began to see more plays and to read them, too. “Growing up in Memphis, I didn’t know who the hell Strindberg was,” Hall says. It was after she read Strindberg, and then, later on, the work of playwrights such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage, that she began to recognize herself and her own experience in dramatic characters.

As a Columbia junior, Hall took an acting class that steered her away from journalism, a career she’d long aimed for, and toward playwriting. In a course on naturalistic acting, the instructor broke the students into pairs and told them to go to the library and find a two-person scene appropriate to their physical type. Hall and her scene partner, another African-American woman, headed to the library.

“We sat there for hours pulling out all these damn plays,” said Hall. A Raisin in the Sun wouldn’t do, as neither woman considered herself the right age to play Mama. The Crucible wouldn’t work, as they couldn’t both do Tituba. Dispirited, they returned to the classroom and asked their teacher—who couldn’t think of a suitable scene, either. In that moment, said Hall, she decided that if such plays didn’t exist, she would “have to write them.”

Actually, Hall had already begun her first play, a tragic, magic-inflected romance called Hoodoo Love, set in Memphis during the Depression. But writing took something of a sideline while she completed a master’s degree in acting at the ART Institute, for which she auditioned with speeches drawn from As You Like It and The Piano Lesson. She studied both at Harvard University’s Cambridge, Mass., campus and in Moscow, where her hair rendered her a novelty and where she would sometimes amuse herself by telling inquisitive Russians that she was Whoopi Goldberg’s daughter.

While as an undergrad she had been relegated to mostly secondary roles—she still bristles at having been passed over for Irina in Three Sisters—at ART she did play Irina (albeit in a scene-study class) and many other roles, some black, some white. In addition to Chekhov scripts, she acted in Ernest Hemingway adaptations, Bertolt Brecht cabarets, Christopher Durang comedies, and even learned a Czech accent for a production of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day. (Her dialect class never seemed to cover “black” accents, she remembers.)

Hall booked some work after graduation, appearing in a couple of Law and Order episodes, but not enough to avoid a day job. Had she won roles more consistently, Hall says, she still would have continued to write, but she might not have applied to the prestigious playwriting program at the Juilliard School, which accepted her on the strength of Hoodoo Love (which would go on to have its New York premiere in 2007 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and which is currently running in Chicago in a production by the Collective Theatre Company). Durang, who runs the Juilliard program with Marsha Norman, recalled her in an e-mail as “charming and extremely beautiful.” What surprised him, he wrote, was the variety of her subjects and “and how seemingly effortless her writing was in almost everything she took on.”

At Juilliard, Hall wrote Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, a comic drama with a Cyrano de Bergerac strain and a mostly female cast set in a Memphis beauty shop at the end of World War II. She also crafted Hurt Village, set in a nearby housing project some 60 years later. And it was there she began to work on a play she had long contemplated, The Mountaintop, a two-character piece featuring Martin Luther King Jr. and a young hotel maid, set in Memphis’s Lorraine Motel on the evening before King’s assassination.

 

Hall’s mother, Carrie Mae Golden, had wanted to go and hear King deliver what would be his final speech, the one in which he proclaimed, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” But Golden’s mother, citing bomb threats, withheld permission. Golden, said Hall, “thought about running down the street or going out the window or whatever, but she decided to stay at home,” a choice which remains the greatest regret of her life.

Golden often told that story to her daughter, which, said Hall, “planted a seed in me so deep that when I got the skill and the desire and passion to write the story, I took it on.” In the play, Carrie Mae Golden transforms into the motel maid Camae, who brings coffee to King and helps him pass his last night on earth. In fiction, then, if not in life, Hall salves her mother’s regret, granting a private audience and an uninterrupted hour with the man Carrie Mae had longed to see.

Just after finishing the two-year Juilliard program, Hall received word that Theatre503, an intimate space above a pub on London’s Battersea Park Road, wanted to produce The Mountaintop. That acclaimed production transferred to a West End theatre and in 2010 it won the Olivier award (England’s version of the Tony) for best new play, beating out Jez Butterworth’s much-lauded Jerusalem and surprising nearly everyone—with the possible exception of Hall, who hadn’t even attended the West End opening night, preferring to stay in Africa with the man who would shortly become her husband, where she was researching a new play.

Hall said she doesn’t place much emphasis on awards. “The Olivier, it was like okay, cool,” she shrugs. “But it doesn’t impress me. What impresses me is if I have a diverse audience; what impresses me is if I get to say exactly what I want to say in exactly the way I want to say it; that’s what impresses me.” She does concede that she appreciates the greater opportunities that awards might provide.

Candidly ambitious, Hall speaks often about her “über-goal,” establishing a sizeable body of produced work. When she receives word that a theatre wants to mount a play, her reaction, she notes, is often not one of pleasure and delight, but of cool-headed appraisal: “Okay, you want to do this play, but I wrote 10. Who’s gonna do those?”

Even on the first night of WHADDABLOODCLOT!!! at Williamstown, she had a conversation with a festival worker with whether or not she could stuff the programs with postcards for an upcoming show—a production of Children of Killers, a youth drama focusing on the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, originally written for London’s National Theatre. That show opened at Manhattan’s Castillo Theatre in September and runs through Oct. 28.

Even if Hall disclaims awards and West End transfers, it was likely the Olivier imprimatur that interested Broadway producers in The Mountaintop, which opened in October 2011 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, starring Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as Camae. Atypically, that Broadway season also featured two other works by African-American women, Lydia Diamond’s Stick Fly and Suzan-Lori Parks’s new book for Porgy and Bess. Some media outlets reported this as a trend, but Hall remained skeptical. “I was always like ‘Careful, careful, careful—what will the next season be?’” she says. And indeed, the 2012–13 Broadway season promises no such trend.

On Broadway, The Mountaintop recouped its investment and delighted many in the audience, who sometimes talked back to the actors, engaging verbally with the play, a response that Hall praises as “explosive” and “visceral.” This season, it will play in at least a dozen regional theatres across the U.S. It has been licensed for Barbados and Australia, as well.

Yet American critics didn’t warm to the play as the English ones had, and it received no Tony nominations. Hall attributes this difference to U.S. attitudes toward King. Americans, she believes, prefer to see King as a saint rather than a man. Her play desires the opposite, as when Camae scents King’s shoes and crows, “Dr. Kang got stanky feet. Oooo! And you got holes in your socks, too?” Besides, says Hall, displaying some of the outspokenness she often reveals in interviews and in her lively Twitter feed, “I think critics tend to be dismissive toward young women writers anyway.”

Certainly, they didn’t react any more kindly to her next play, Hurt Village, which launched her tenure as one of Signature Theatre’s “Residency Five” playwrights, a five-year program that commissions and produces three plays per writer. James Houghton, the artistic director of the Signature, who had seen a workshop of Hurt Village during Hall’s time at Juilliard, calls Hall “fierce” and “fearless” and the play “an incredibly powerful piece of writing.” Set in a derelict housing project slated for demolition, it centers on Cookie, a mouthy, precocious 13-year-old, and the drug-doers, drug dealers and hard-scrabblers who surround her. “Folks round here so po’ we can’t even afford the r at the end,” Cookie tells us.

Only a few critics applauded the production, and several wrote reviews revealing a refusal to engage with the play and its characters. In some ways, Hall seems resigned to such analyses. “I can’t make them learn about being poor and black in Memphis, Tennessee,” she says, even as the play attempts to do just that. But then she adds, rather more darkly, “I must say, those critics do not want to be in a bar with me.”

 

Perhaps the quality that most distinguishes Hall’s writing—and which may alienate some viewers—is her refusal to write immediately likable characters. With the exception of sweet Camae, her figures are often spiky, appetitive, venial, uninterested in courting audience applause. Their obvious humanity demands empathy, but they certainly go out of their way to discourage it. “I feel like most people in the world aren’t easy to like,” Hall explains. “I’m really just interested in how dark I can go and still be entertaining.”

Similarly, Hall doesn’t pull any punches linguistically. She dots her conversation with various more-or-less unprintable terms and lards her scripts with far more. One scene of WHADDABLOODCLOT!!! focuses on Jamaican profanities, another debates the propriety of various racial slurs. Some audience members have objected to this vocabulary, but Hall defends her word choice. “I understand the power of language,” but as a writer, she says she needs access to the widest variety of expressions. So far no theatres have asked to moderate her scripts.

Just as Hall resists refining her language or writing straightforwardly sympathetic characters, she doesn’t seem particularly interested in being liked personally. She has acquired a reputation for forthrightness that can border on abrasiveness. Houghton, a great admirer, called her “very direct and very opinionated and very sharp and smart.” Hall admitted that while some may think her difficult, “for me it’s more about being adamant about my vision and having some kind of integrity.”

This bluntness occasionally comes through even in the course of a friendly conversation. When asked if her glut of Memphis plays—she has ones set in the 1930s, 1940s, 1960s and the 2000s—suggest a century-long project akin to August Wilson’s, she bristles visibly. “He’s August Wilson, I’m Katori Hall,” she declares. “I’m definitely not trying to do an August Wilson.” But she does acknowledge Beale Street as “the place that shaped me. Even walking around Williamstown, I’m as Memphis as can be. It’s a way to be at home.”

Hall doesn’t plan a return home anytime soon, at least not theatrically. She is at work on two Rwandan plays, one about three visionaries sanctioned by the Catholic Church and another set in 2014 on the anniversary of the genocide. She is also preparing a play about exotic dancers in Mississippi, entitled Pussy Valley, which may debut at the Signature, though she said she has some concerns about finding actresses sufficiently skilled in pole dancing. As if that weren’t busy-making enough, she also entertains herself with event planning, floral design, guitar playing and cooking, which has inspired her forthcoming blog “Katori’s Kitchen.”

Her creative process, she said, “is pretty joyful. I’m constantly inundated, I’m very sensitive, so I’m constantly looking for stories, feeling stories in my body.” As disparate as the voices she writes are—the rich ones, the poor ones, the black ones, the white ones, the violent ones, the victimized ones—she feels that they all connect to her own ways of moving in and through and with and against the world. In playwriting, says Hall, “I want to go to extremes because I feel like I’ve lived my life in extremes. Our work is us.” 

 

Alexis Soloski is a critic and arts journalist based in New York City.

Written on October 9th, 2012 , Media, Uncategorized

 

 

 

 

 

The Williamstown Theatre Festival has announced the world premiere of Oliver Award-winning Mountaintop playwright Katori Hall‘s Whaddabloodclot!!! as part of it 2012 summer season. New additions to Williamstown’s summer lineup also include a newly conceived production of Oscar Wilde‘s The Importance of Being Earnest, staged by Tony winner David Hyde Pierce (June 26-July 14). It is described as a Guys and Dolls meets “Downton Abbey” take on the classic comedy.

Tony winner Richard Nelson will stage the world premiere of a new translation of Ivan Turgenev‘s A Month in the Country (Aug. 1-19).
Nelson collaborated with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky on thetranslation.

Jessica Stone will stage Neil Simon’s classic comedy The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (July 11-22), and a free staging of Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear, adapted by Steve Lawson, will also be offered (July 18-27).

Whaddabloodclot!!! (Aug. 8-19) is presented in association with the Signature Theatre Company, which is currently presenting Hall’s Hurt Village.

Here’s how the new play is described: “One-percenter Eden Higgenbotham lives
a cushy Upper-East-Side life surrounded by equally affluent, vain, and snobbish
friends. When a sudden stroke causes her to contract the very rare Foreign
Accent Syndrome, which makes her speak uncontrollably with a Jamaican accent,
she’s forced to embrace a dramatically altered identity.”

As previously reported, Williamstown will produce Far From Heaven, a new musical with a book by Tony Award winner Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out) and an original score by Tony-nominated Grey Gardens songwriters Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics). Michael Greif (Next to Normal, Grey Gardens, Rent) will direct (July 19-29). Three-time Tony Award nominee Kelli O’Hara will star.

Also announced in recent weeks was the world premiere of Lucy Boyle’s The Blue Deep, starring Tony winner Blythe Danner, under the direction of Bob Balaban (July 11-22).

Single tickets will go on sale in April. Visit WilliamstownTheatreFestival

Written on March 7th, 2012 , Media

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Written on March 7th, 2012 , Media
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