If there were plenty of rangy and surprising parts for black women on American stages, Katori Hall might not have become a playwright. But while taking a class in college, Hall and an acting partner were stumped trying to find plays with scenes for two young black women.
“From that moment, I committed myself to truly trying to excavate what the black female experience is in America,” Hall says before rehearsals of her new play, “The Blood Quilt,” which comes with big parts for five African American women of differing generations and interests. “It is kind of my mission statement in terms of why I write.”
The Memphis-raised Hall adds with one of her infectious, explosive laughs, “That means I’m going to be writing forever!”
“The Blood Quilt” involves four sisters — all with the same mother, now deceased, but with different fathers — meeting for their annual quilting reunion off the coast of Georgia. The premiere at Arena Stage marks a first for Hall and for director Kamilah Forbes: They’ve never been part of a show so entirely powered by black women (cast, writer, director).
That novelty gives rise to questions about opportunities, none more central than those for performers. Afi Bijou’s initial reply is a huffy are you kidding me? snort.
“Absolutely not,” the actress says. “There aren’t enough roles. And there isn’t enough variety in the roles.”
Forbes was a D.C.-based actress before moving to New York and focusing on directing. “It was difficult to have a full season of work, and I got tired of waiting,” Forbes says. August Wilson’s popular plays weren’t much help: “If Studio Theatre is doing ‘Two Trains Running,’ and you don’t get that one [female] role,” she says, “and you know there are 40 black actresses here in D.C. that could do it — and in New York, times that by 200 — it becomes frustrating.”
That’s why spirits are high around “The Blood Quilt,” and around Hall in general. Hall’s two-character drama “The Mountaintop,” which showed an earthier-than-expected Martin Luther King Jr. having a long, fantastical conversation with a hotel housekeeper the night before his assassination, has been a hit in London, New York and across the United States. But Hall aggressively resists pigeonholing, as her new works this season attest. Consider:
●Last fall, Hall premiered “Our Lady of Kibeho,” based on an event involving Catholic schoolgirls in 1981-1982 Rwanda. “Transfixing,” said the New York Times. “I write more from place than from race,” says Hall, who has been to Rwanda about half a dozen times.
●Now premiering at Minneapolis’s Mixed Blood Theatre: Hall’s “Pussy Valley,” about strippers in a rural Mississippi club.
●This fall, Hall expects to begin production on her first film, a $1 million indie project of her play “Hurt Village” (about a crisis in a Memphis housing project). Hall is making her directorial debut.
“The thing about Katori,” Forbes says, “is she lives her life on a very broad spectrum. So she’s able to illuminate the very different voices within that spectrum.”
Of the entertainment industry, Hall says: “There are so many hoops you have to go through when you are a content creator who is of color. Everyone has to be given permission to tell their stories, to some extent. The institution has to approve your story. . . . I don’t really care who my collaborators are in terms of race. But I must admit, when I have an opportunity to work with a person of color and in particular with a black woman, that to me is the first choice. Because if I don’t give her an opportunity, nobody else will. You have to walk the walk.
New York-based, was in the original Broadway cast of “Once on This Island,” in 1990, and last year was on Broadway in the Tupac Shakur bio-musical “Holler If Ya Hear Me.”
Role in “The Blood Quilt”: Zambia, Cassan’s teenage daughter.
“There are never roles written for you that challenge your artistry in the way that I think most people who devote their lives to this form of art want to be challenged. But that being said, it’s amazing to have a person like Katori Hall write the complexities of what it means to be a woman, to be a black woman in America and in this world, with and without family, how we deal within our community.
“I think a lot of actors should think about writing more. We have a lot to say. But at the same time I think it’s really important for theaters, television shows, films — whatever it is — to buy into all our stories, not just the ones that are sensational and fantastical.”
New York-based, with regional credits across the country, including Hall’s “The Mountaintop” at Milwaukee Repertory Theater.
Role in “The Blood Quilt”: Cassan, the third-born sister.
“I can’t actually think of many plays that have five black women onstage, number one. If there are, they tend to live in the same socioeconomic background and have the same views.
“The American theater can do more than one play a year that has black and minority faces. Also, allowing our stories to be told in the way that we tell them, and not having us rewrite or rework the life or the roots out of it.
“I got offered a role on a TV show, a recurring role. But they wanted me to basically be naked, simulating sex. It’s not that I won’t do nudity, but I feel like I have a responsibility as a black woman to not be reckless with the image I put out into the world. So I had to turn that down. Her character wasn’t something I could have been proud of, either. It wasn’t multifaceted.”
Role in “The Blood Quilt”: Gio, the second-born sister.
“You cannot know how wonderful it is as an actor — and now as an acting teacher mentoring this next generation of artists — that I can look to our own canon for content. My young actresses don’t have to do Linda from ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Not that it’s not wonderful, but that we can look to ‘Hurt Village’ or the work by Danai Gurira or Katori and Tarell Alvin McCraney — we can look to this generation now of young artists of color.
“I feel as if I’m on the ground floor of something that I have no doubt one day will be in every regional theater in the country.
“I do think there is more opportunity now, but you have to have a lot going at the same time. What’s happening in terms of the TV thing or the film thing? What can I do to generate work for myself?”
New York-based, raised in Detroit, recently completed her BFA at Rutgers University.
Role in “The Blood Quilt”: Amber, the youngest sister.
“Being in college, we had a chance to do everything. To expand our acting muscles, I could have played Queen Margaret, and Viola from ‘Twelfth Night.’ And because I was given that false sense of reality, coming into the industry was kind of a shocker for me. I would go out for just what was available, and what I would be seen as was the one black friend in an all-white cast, because you’ve got to have that one ethnic curve.”
Davis says she has been told about an “ethnic crisis” phenomenon driving casting sometimes in Hollywood: “We’ve got to have some color in this — black, Asian, Indian — anything that is not white. But I haven’t really seen a play like this where we have five strong black women that are able to connect to all the broader schemes of the whole community. And it is upsetting because it is 2015, and with everything about race relations and the toll on the country, it’s just so bizarre to me.”
New York-based (first name pronounced “Tony”), played Heylia James on TV’s “Weeds,” toured as Mama Nadi in Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning drama “Ruined,” recently appeared in the premiere of the Suzan-Lori Parks epic “Father Comes Home From the Wars” at the Public Theater.
Role in “The Blood Quilt”: Clementine, the oldest sister.
“I wrote a piece called ‘Maids, Whores and Nurses, May I Help You?’ because I have, to some degree, built a career playing those roles. What I wound up realizing is that I’m not playing an occupation. I’m playing a person who happens to have that occupation. And some of the most interesting roles that I’ve had have been maids, whores and nurses.
“The wonderful thing that Katori is doing is giving us five women that all have points of view, that bring their full selves.
“And it has weight — you can carry a piece, as opposed to coming in at 10 o’clock and having somebody guffaw or laugh because you are the snappy friend.”
The Blood Quilt by Katori Hall. April 24-June 7 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $45-$100, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.