A “Knack for Tasty Wordplay”
Katori Hall '03 makes an acclaimed Off-Broadway debut with Hoodoo Love
By Yelena Shuster ’09
Katori Hall ’03 earned critical acclaim for her Off-Broadway debut, Hoodoo Love.
Photo: Christine Cain-Weidner
Growing up in one of three black families in a mostly white Memphis neighborhood, Katori Hall ’03 often was called an “Oreo” (black on the outside, white on the inside) and occasionally a “ni––er” behind her back by her white classmates. Ever since then, the now–26-year-old has grappled with what she calls her “double-consciousness” as a Black American, struggling to define the hyphenated identity that ties the past of her African roots to the present of her American existence.
The exploration has paid off. Inspired by her rich past, Hall penned her Off-Broadway debut, Hoodoo Love, which ran to critical acclaim at NYC’s Cherry Lane Theatre October 18–December 9.
Based in 1930s Memphis, Hoodoo Love tells the haunting story of young Toulou finding love and chasing her dream of becoming a blues singer after escaping the Mississippi Delta cotton fields. She tempts fate with Hoodoo, a form of African-American folk magic, taught to her by the Candy Lady, an elderly former slave who believes nothing can keep your man by your side like a good old incantation — and perhaps some “ministration in his coffee.” Most striking in the play is Hall’s ability to capture the melody of the Southern African-American vernacular. Her characters’ everyday speech mimics the poetry of the blues without a single note necessary.
Critics praised Hall’s original voice. Time Out New York noticed her “knack for tasty wordplay” and called Hoodoo Love “a major debut.” The Village Voice said, “Hall’s ear for unusual language makes her a new writer worth watching.” The play was nominated for three AUDELCO Awards and received the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award.
Hoodoo Love, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, originally was produced in 2006 as part of the Cherry Lane Theatre’s Mentor Project, which engages three renowned dramatists in one-on-one mentorships with three chosen playwrights for an entire season. Lynn Nottage, the acclaimed playwright of A Stone’s Throw and Crumbs From the Table of Joy, chose to mentor Hall from among five candidates. “Instantly, when I read the play, I felt she was the real deal,” Nottage says. “The language was rich and evocative. She had an amazing ear for dialogue. It’s rare that someone’s language leaps off the page when you read it.”
Hoodoo Love began as an assignment in a creative writing class with Professor Austin Flint during Hall’s senior year at the College. Students were asked to write about two people in a room fighting over an object. At the time, Hall was reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, where she first heard the folk magic concept of a “mojo hand,” a sack full of remnants of former loves. That scene was the basis for Hoodoo Love, which debuted five years later. Hall credits Flint for his early support of her writing. “We need more teachers who look at what we do have to offer. He saw something in me, and that made the Creative Writing Program a wonderful experience for me,” she says.
“You are forever wading into the melting pot that is America…
You are attempting to be, first and foremost, human.”
But Hall’s first training ground in creative writing came from her family. Listening to the way her grandparents spoke was her linguistics research. “It was a way of speaking I had always been around. My parents had wonderful sayings. I grew up in a family that spoke in wonderful similes and metaphors,” she says.
Hall’s maternal grandmother was “Big Momma” when Hall was a child and her grandmother’s house acted as a day care center for all of her siblings in downtown Memphis. Not surprisingly, her play’s characters have a basis in her childhood. Candy Lady is based on many older women Hall grew up with who would give treats to kids in the neighborhood. “It’s my umbrella term for the matriarch in the black community,” she says. “The character’s coming from a very real, authentic place.” The play’s roots in superstition also stem from her childhood. For example, Hall notes, “I don’t allow my hair to be thrown away. I get rid of it myself. If a bird comes and finds your hair, and uses it to make a nest, it will drive you crazy. I got that from my family.”
Hall’s family descended from sharecroppers and she describes her parents as “hard-working, blue-collar people.” She is the youngest of four sisters and the only one who finished college. Hall spent the first five years of her life in Orange Mound, “not the best part of Memphis,” she notes. “But we didn’t know we were struggling.”
Her mother, Carrie, cut corners by making house decorations, not going “the fashion designer way,” and selling hand-sewn floral arrangements and gift baskets to get by. “I worked as much overtime as I could to bring in extra money. For a long time, we didn’t have a computer. We went to the library every other day, because she [Katori] was serious about her homework,” Carrie says.
Before Hall began kindergarten, her family moved to Raleigh, a wealthier part of Memphis. They were one of three black families that moved in, and integration wasn’t easy. “Sometimes I got called a ‘ni––er’ at school, from kids I grew up with from kindergarten. I asked a kid why he called me that and he said his dad said we came from Niger. That was a turning moment in my life, because I didn’t know enough about my history to refute that,” she says.
This sparked Hall’s exploration of her black roots in her writing: “It’s a constant mental struggle, this double-consciousness of being a Black American. At the same time, it’s great fodder for my writing.” She explains this “double-consciousness” reference to W.E.B. Du Bois as a struggle in defining your identity: “At the end of the day, you are not really African — you are too far-removed from your place of origin, there are no language or cultural ties that can sail you home — and you are not really American — because of your brown skin, you can never truly assimilate into mainstream America. You are forever wading in the melting pot that is America, trying hard to define yourself by your own standards and not by the hackneyed, trite, misinformed assumptions held by white Americans. You are attempting to be, first and foremost, human.”
Hall, the first black valedictorian in her high school, graduated with hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship money for college. In addition to schools’ individual offers of financial aid, she won national scholarships from various organizations such as Ron Brown, Coca-Cola, Elks Lodge, Target and Wal-Mart. The same kids who called her an “Oreo” growing up now asked her to tutor them in SAT preparation.
At Columbia, Hall majored in African-American studies and concentrated in creative writing. Hall stood out to Professor Farah Griffin, who says, “My first introduction to my students is through their writing. That’s what stood out to me about Katori — the quality of her writing. She had the combination of talent, confidence and discipline. I never had any doubt about Katori at all and I think [her successful play is] just the beginning for her.”
When Hall recently visited the campus, she noticed how much the same everything looked. “As a campus, it hasn’t changed at all, but it’s changed me so much,” she says. Hall began school under the Opportunity Programs and Undergraduate Services (OPUS) program, which offers financial and academic support to students whose high schools may not have adequately prepared them for college. While a student, she performed with the Classical Theater of Harlem and took classes at the Harlem School of the Arts. Hall experienced 9-11 as a student and says, “It influenced my whole idea of real war. Growing up, I never thought about it. Knowing that you don’t know anything, that the world is so big, that people can use terror to manipulate politics, really forced me to grow up fast.”
Toulou (Angela Lewis) and Candy Lady (Marjorie Johnson) in a scene from Hoodoo Love.
Photo: Jaisen Crockett/Art Meets Commerce
Hall’s penchant for telling stories led her to journalism. From her hometown newspaper to Spectator, Hall’s reporting experience taught her the structure of stories and characters. In fact, her new play, Hurt Village (winner of the 2008 New Professional Theatre’s Writer’s Festival), is based exclusively on interviews she conducted with people who lived in a housing project of that name. “I rely on journalism skills when researching for my fiction,” she says. She’s also working on a romantic comedy set during the end of WWII in Memphis called Saturday Night/Sunday Morning.
After Columbia, Hall received her M.F.A. in acting with the American Repertory Theater Institute at Harvard, and she is now studying playwriting at Juilliard. She remains grateful to her family for instilling in her the importance of education. “My family has an immense amount of pride. I like becoming a role model. I hear kids say, ‘If Auntie Katori can do it, I can, too.’ That’s the reason my parents moved when I was 5. They wanted a better life. My parents were very forward-thinking,” she says.
Though she’s still getting rejection letters from other theaters for Hoodoo Love, Hall has learned not to take it personally. “I try not to concentrate on the negative stuff. I know this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel a huge responsibility to tell the stories of Black people from a contemporary world. That’s what keeps me going — I have so much to say.”
Nottage, for one, says Hall is on the right path. “I believe absolutely in her voice,” she says. “I believe that the things she has to say have yet to find a way to the American stage.”
Despite her compelling new life in New York City, Hall has no problems going home to Memphis. She credits the actor in her for being able to interact with everyone in her life on their own terms. “I’m very malleable in terms of who I hang around with. I become a chameleon and speak the way they speak. When I’m in Memphis, I’m little Katori” — here she changes the inflection of her voice to represent a Southern accent — “just this city-country girl who loves chitlins on Christmas.”
Yelena Shuster ’09 is a staff writer and theater critic for Spectator. Her articles have appeared in CosmoGIRL! and Us Weekly online.