Katori Hall’s Humanism is Taking the World by Storm

Although Katori Hall has thought about writing herself a solo show—and as a playwright/actor/producer/director, she’s more than capable of doing so—in the end, she says, “I just like people too much. Plays remind me of the time I would play make-believe with my sister. I like that feeling of creating life—new life—with other people.” Though her work spans decades and mediums, that abiding love of “other people” has remained the defining trait of all her storytelling. 

Hall’s fascination with others’ stories dates back to her childhood. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, Hall’s family dinners were always a competition to see who could tell the most elaborate anecdote (she jokes that her parents are “very dramatic people. I learned from the best”). Hall’s interest in storytelling initially led her to journalism; by 14, she was conducting interviews, learning about individuals in her community, and picking up on cadences and speech patterns in the process. But a few years later, an acting class at Columbia University pushed her to try her hand at a new kind of writing. When Hall and her classmate—another young Black woman—were assigned to do a scene together, they could not find a single play that featured two Black women talking. Hall made up her mind: “I was like, ‘Well, I have to write them.

Hall studied acting at the Institute for Advanced Theater Training (out of American Repertory Theater), and then enrolled in Julliard’s Playwriting MFA program, where she began to workshop what would later become The Mountaintop. Set in Martin Luther King Jr.’s hotel room on the night before he was assassinated, the play takes a more human view of a great historical figure—Hall’s King has smelly feet and a crush on his hotel maid. She believes that “a warts-and-all portrayal of Dr. King is important because there’s this extraordinary human being who is actually quite ordinary…by portraying him with his flaws and foibles, we too, can see—as human beings who have these flaws—that we, too, can be Kings.” It is hard to imagine a more telling expression of Hall’s humanism. 

The Mountaintop, which premiered at a small British theatre in 2009 and eventually became a Broadway hit, propelled Hall to international success. She followed it up with 2013’s Hurt Village, about a group of neighbors in a Memphis housing project, and 2015’s Our Lady of Kibeho, set in a small town in Rwanda. In 2018, Hall returned to her interest in intimate history when she wrote the book for Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which she also helped to produce. Though she was fascinated by the chance to focus on the personal life of an icon, Hall also took the project to pay tribute to her mother, a Tina Turner super-fan. “When I got the opportunity to lay my hands on the show,” she explains, “it was more, like, to impress my mom than anything else. But I ended up being changed in the process.”

If Tina was a gift to her mother, it was Hall’s brother Wayne who catalyzed The Hot Wing King. In real life, Wayne shares a home with his barbecue chef partner; in the show, Wayne becomes Dwayne, and the barbecue chef becomes Cordell, chicken-wing fryer extraordinaire. In a testament to how much her dramatic work remains “steeped in the truth,” Hall has gone from playing make-believe with her sister to putting her brother and his friends onstage. And with these real and beloved individuals in mind, it was important to Hall that the play—groundbreaking for its joyful portrayal of gay Black men—should be less about their sexuality and more “about them being human,” messing up but also loving and supporting each other. In other words, whether it’s Dr. King or her own family, Hall’s “warts-and-all” aesthetic persists.  

The past couple of years have been a whirlwind for Katori Hall. She was nominated for two Tony Awards for her work on Tina; she became the showrunner of Starz’ P-Valley, based on one of her plays; and most recently, she won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Drama with The Hot Wing King. But through it all, her deep, empathetic humanism—her love of “other people”—has remained a constant, a principal that is both artistic and political. After all, she reflects, “in this little box…I can demand your time and give you my people’s humanity. That, to me, is its own activism.” And from a six-person comedy to a big Broadway musical, from stinky feet to spicy wings, that is exactly what she does.

Francesca Sabel