If you are a playwright, it is easy to look at Katori Hall and only see success. If you are a Black female playwright from the South, that success might even appear to be your lodestar.
Originally from Memphis, Tenn., Katori Hall has an admiration for the people who make up her home that is apparent every time she puts pen to paper. Her characters enact an uber-specific use of “slanguage” to represent the authentic vernaculars of Black Southerners. And while some audience members have maligned her for this practice, Hall sees it as more than just a dialectological technique. It is a commitment—a way of honoring her ancestors, her mother, herself.
We see the pride Cookie wears when delivering cuss-filled raps in Hurt Village, we melt into Martin Luther King Jr.’s weary drawl in The Mountaintop, we grin at Isom’s quintessential New Orleanian pronunciation of “baby” in The Hot Wing King. (Now, with the Starz series P-Valley, set in the Mississippi Delta, we have the voices of a whole new cast of Hall characters to relish.) The authenticity of these characters has inspired a generation of playwrights to write their own people down in their plays.
Enter Erika Dickerson-Despenza. Before the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on theatre productions, Dickerson-Despenza, a Princess Grace Award winner, was set to debut cullud wattah at New York City’s Public Theater. A stunning Afro-surrealist story that follows an intergenerational chorale of women impacted by water crisis in Flint, Mich., cullud wattah would be her first world premiere production. It’s a play inspired in part by Hall.
“Reading Katori Hall was the first time I saw Black Englishes in plays that were accurate and native to the place,” Dickerson-Despenza said. “My first time seeing Black girlhood in urban spaces where my people are from. My show exists because hers did.”
When I first approached Katori and Erika, this was the spark—their mentor-mentee relationship, their deep-seated Southern roots, and the ways they thought the theatre industry would have to adapt to the times. Little did we know that a grander call for change would follow suit.
Since our original conversation, there has been a groundswell of mobilization for the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Nina Pop, and a heartbreaking number of others. Calls have been made to defund police departments, Confederate flags have been banned from NASCAR events, and protesters have poured into the streets in record-shattering numbers.
“As an organizer who uses theatre to politicize and ultimately to radicalize people, my hope for the industry is that we are moved to imagine, cultivate, and sustain a revolutionary theatre industry,” said Dickerson-Despenza, also a police abolitionist and culture worker, a few months later, when I check in with her. “There must be a radical realignment of power. In the spirit of Harriet Tubman, who said, ‘My people are free’ in the middle of slavery, I can say that I’ve seen the future. We win.”
In this interview, conducted during the early days of the pandemic lockdown, Hall and Dickerson-Despenza look toward that future. And as our industry’s leaders continue to navigate unprecedented territory, it is imperative they look toward it too.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: To start off, what are you both feeling right now?
KATORI HALL: Honestly, anxiety. A big part of my heart belongs to theatre, and like many artists, I saw things just stop. Things I have been working on for years, dreaming about for decades, went up in smoke. And I understand that theatre is the ephemeral art form, it’s about the moment. But at least before we had an appointment with the moments. We knew that the curtain would go up and down at a certain time. I do not know when people will be healthy or feel comfy enough to gather, and we are an art form based in gathering. Is it theatre if you are not gathering? I don’t know. I’m still trying to wrap my head around if theatre can exist the way it did previously.
ERIKA DICKERSON-DESPENZA: I am devastated. I can say that with a smile today because that is where my grief sits, but my first world premiere was cancelled. For a Black, queer, 28-year-old woman to have a show at the Public Theater, that meant something to me. What I grieve most is the opportunity that was snatched from all the Black women that were working on this show. It was a cast of exclusively Black American women, a Black American woman director, the creative team was predominantly women of color, and the three folks who were male-identified were either queer or were of color. There were some unprecedented initiatives going alongside the show, and I saw myself able to leverage institutional power and resources in a very different way. My cast announcement didn’t even come out and the cast is fucking amazing! I’m so sad people don’t even know who I’m grieving about. Those women are grieving, and no one knows they got the part!
Have you thought at all about what the other side of this pandemic looks like for the theatre industry?
HALL: I can’t even wrap my head around Broadway and how it’s going to work when we come back, but I also feel like that “when” is a very long way away.
DICKERSON-DESPENZA: I’m pissed I didn’t see Tina yet! I mean, how often do we get a bio-musical about a Black woman with a book written by a Black woman? I need that to come back.
HALL: The industry can only be a reflection of our society, and if our society is not healthy, the industry is not going to be healthy. Literally, people cannot sit next to each other. I honestly don’t see people running to the theatre with the same excitement or with the same amount of money as they did before.
What about for you both personally?
DICKERSON-DESPENZA: This is a time for us as writers to organize. A lot of what I’ve been thinking about and writing about personally is, what are our demands? For every playwright who got that phone call of, “Oh, we’re still so committed to your play,” what is the tangible commitment? What does that commitment look like? The way COVID disproportionately impacts Black and brown people, especially queer and non-binary people—it’s the same thing in our industry. It doesn’t only exist in healthcare and presidential elections and a larger sociopolitical scheme, it exists right here.
I think it’s a good time to ruminate on what theatre we want to come back to. Can we imagine a world in which we are not fighting to be seen? A world where I’m not so excited about the high numbers of Black women writers being programmed because it’s just the norm? A world in which we aren’t a risk? ’Cause you can always bet on Black women.
HALL: I think this will challenge the theatre world in good and bad ways. The theatres that did support us may not be there in the same way; they are falling apart. I fear the theatres that will be left standing are the ones who have not taken an interest in our community and in writers that are diverse because, for the longest time, they have chased the dollar instead of building community. They rely on writers who are “tried and true,” and in our industry, those tend to be white men. I am fearful of what this is going to do to Black female writers specifically. And I hope we start thinking of ourselves as a collective. If folks turn away, it is going to be us holding each other up.
I did not think about that, but it’s a very important point. Many artistic institutions have spent the better half of the past decade abusing or misusing the word “diversity.” Now is a chance to hold them accountable.
HALL: Yes! I mean, we have to see cullud wattah. We have to see it. It’s a reflection of what we are going through right now. The fact that we have state governments and the federal government not performing or taking care of their citizens? If we don’t see this show right after the pandemic, I don’t know what we will be seeing. Every theatre should be doing it!
DICKERSON-DESPENZA: You have to include that! Katori Hall just told the world every theatre should be doing my play.
DICKERSON-DESPENZA: Thank you. I do worry that institutions are just going to program what they think makes money and what they think will get as many butts as possible in those seats. That’s not me. I’m very intentional about language and space. The regional specificity of Black Englishes have been understudied and are constantly delegitimized. My work honors this “disorderly” way of speaking, where elders talk in pictures and youth create new colorful phrases to describe their world. My mother’s family migrated to Chicago from Mississippi and Alabama. My father’s paternal line migrated to New Orleans from Sicily and opened the first air-conditioned pleasure club and hotel for Blacks in the city. I carry a lot of history with me.
HALL: Don’t you feel like isolation is teaching us a lot about how much we need community? And family? The South can teach you that lesson. I think that’s what we are going to move towards once the pandemic ends. It’s also why I think I’ll never not write about the South.
What institutions or leaders out there are doing great work that you want more people to know about?
HALL: For me, it’s Stacey Abrams—a woman who turned poison into medicine. In the face of voter suppression, she started Fair Fight Action to help secure a future of fair elections. As we steamroll into another important presidential election, I think the work she is doing is so important. We need to figure out how we are going to vote in a fair and equitable way.
DICKERSON-DESPENZA: I think about Flint every day, but especially now with everybody saying “wash your hands,” and knowing that there are places in Detroit, Durham, even Memphis that have trouble accessing clean water. I consistently come back to Amariyanna Copeny, widely known as Little Miss Flint, who for the past six years has been creating initiative after initiative to help Flint youth. Currently, she is partnered up with Hydroviv and they have created a Clean Water Fund campaign that people can donate to.
Any final words of wisdom you’d like to bless the people with?
HALL: If you are a storyteller, you’re creating your own narrative around this. You are on your hero’s journey. And this? This is the big test.
Brittani Samuel is a writer currently based in New York. Bylines can be found at Zora, OkayAfrica, InStyle, Broadly, and a few other places on the Internet. She can be found on Instagram at @brittaniidiannee.