Katori Hall + Steve H. Broadnax III on the Power of Black Direction in Theater

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Photo Source: Diane Zhao

The following is a conversation between writer Katori Hall (“Tina – The Tina Turner Musical,” Starz’ “P-Valley”) and writer-director-actor Steve H. Broadnax III; the two worked together on Hall’s play “The Hot Wing King,” with Broadnax serving as director. The discussion is moderated by the actor-playwright Nikkole Salter, who also wrote the introduction. 

In 2016, I was commissioned by NJPAC via Luna Stage to write a play about the indigenous experience in New Jersey.  I wrote a play called “Indian Head,” examining the use of mascots in sports. While writing that play I, and the then-artistic director, Cheryl Katz, had many conversations about cultural appropriation, quickly getting to the root of the matter, asking, “What is culture? And why is it important?” 

I heard her thoughts and philosophically agreed: Culture is just a set of perspectives and actions that represent a group of people’s understandings of the best way to live. So, if culture is ultimately a human invention, Cheryl asked, “Why does it matter if someone starts using your eating utensils, or praying your prayer, or styling their hair the way you do?” Why is culture worth fighting over?

At the root of every cultural practice is perception—a worldview and identity.  Honoring the specificity of cultural tradition is, at the heart of the matter, honoring, respecting, and validating a particular worldview. It says, “The way you see the world is correct. What you see, I see. What you hear, I hear. The meaning you’ve assigned from all this sensual data is appropriate. I agree.”  

So, when narratives written for the stage by, say, Black people, are being directed by people who have little if any knowledge, experience, interest, or understanding for a Black worldview—or worse, they have no respect or regard for the specificity of a Black world view—it’s easy to imagine that the authenticity of the Black narrative and all it was designed to communicate will be compromised. It’s easy to imagine how, say, white audiences, who experience the compromised narrative, may come to further misunderstand the Black worldview being expressed. It’s easy to imagine how a production based on the aforementioned play (especially when amalgamated with the impact of other productions of similar plays) could invalidate, undermine, and even participate in the erasure of a Black worldview.   

That’s why people are fighting: fighting for the right to have their point of view, upon which their very identity is based; people are fighting the fear that their perception is inherently limited in its ability to reveal the whole truth; people are fighting the perceived possibility of erasure.

So, when I sat down with Ms. Katori Hall and Mr. Steve H. Broadnax, III—two phenomenally brilliant, young, acclaimed theater artists—to talk about their collaboration on last season’s “The Hot Wing King” at the Signature Theatre, I was very curious to hear about their experience getting to work together in a rehearsal room where there was no underlying culture war; where the specificity of their worldview and identity as southern Black Americans would be supported.

This is our interview:

Nikkole Salter:
Let’s get it. 

Steve Broadnax:
Let’s!

Katori Hall: 
Yes!

NS:
Some context: The New York Times once printed an op-ed in which the late, great August Wilson lamented that whenever he would assert to producers and institutions, “I want a black director,” he often heard the response, “We don’t want to hire anybody just because they’re Black.” On a surface level, that seems like a progressive response, a response advocating for directors to be judged by their character and skill, not their skin color. That’s a good thing.  But, without saying it directly, that response from producers and institutions also implies that August Wilson was willing to settle for an unqualified director just because they were the right shade of brown. It also implies that the cultural experience that a director brings to the work is irrelevant. So, I ask you, all artistic skill-sets equal, what is the value of a Black director?  What value do they bring to works written by Black writers?

KH: 
First of all, I’m so glad no white person ever said what was said to August Wilson to me because they would have got a real long talk. 

I’m often put in this position, when it comes to other things, too. Like, “What is the value that a woman brings to directing? What is the value that a queer person brings to this job if the show was focusing on the queer community?” It’s interesting that some people see identity as just a surface thing when it is, I think, very integral to who you are as a creator, and as an artist. Because, we all go through this world, and we have a lived experience that impacts us as to how we see the world, and how we decide to create our art, and what we decide to focus on. So, when you have works, now I’m speaking specifically for myself, because my work often is centered through a Black lens, and centered on the Black experience, and the Black female experience, I find that it is a necessity to have a creative partner who can echo your lens, and who you don’t have to explain, or justify things to. Who knows the, what I call, “hidden transcripts” in your work.

[That means] there are just some things that are understood, and the creators, or directors specifically, who are knowledgeable about the Black experience, having lived it, often understand what that hidden transcript is. What is the thing that is unspoken, that is being said in the room between audience and performer, when it comes to your work? To me, it is a necessity to have Black directors direct Black work, particularly in the American theater, which oftentimes has required many of us to create work in a way that is palatable to white audiences. So, if you really want to hit the bullseye, when it comes to the most authentic experience you can have when it comes to articulating Black culture and Black stories, I do think it helps to have an interpreter. That’s what I think a director is: an interpreter who won’t get off the bullseye. And real talk, it’s some Black folks out there who do get off the bullseye, don’t get me wrong.

NS: 
Black is not a monolith, OK?

Nikkole Salter
KH:
But I have found—and this is coming from somebody who has worked with many white directors, and luckily have worked with white directors who understood that their lived experience would never allow them to direct or interpret Black work in a way that felt
completely authentic by themselves. That’s why they were always making choices [while they] always had me in the room, or have assistant directors, and other people on the creative team that at least understood their lived experience from the inside.

SB:
I agree with you, Katori, and I think about when you and I have worked together. there’s a lived experience that is shared. It is the specificity of who we are that we bring in the room, Black director and Black writer. Any other race could direct a Black show, but the mastery of the lived experience brings the material’s nuance. Together, we can play all 88 keys of our experience scale, versus an octave.  We can get into the grace notes, the flats, and the Black experience’s sharps and not be limited to the white keys.  A Black director or POC brings subtle details to writers of color through lived experiences. That said, we all don’t share the same understanding of being Black in America. Yet many times, we get lumped together as if all Black is the same Black. Oh, I think it was you Katori who said, “All skin folk ain’t kinfolk.”

READ: How Karena Evans Went From Music Videos to Directing “P-Valley”

NS:
Now, Katori, as one of America’s premier dramatists who has won numerous awards, an Olivier, has had two Broadway productions, and now has a hit TV show “P-Valley,” At this point in your career, you could have any director you want. What made you ask Broadnax to direct “Hot Wing King”?

KH:

You’re right. I could have any director I wanted, and that’s who I wanted. People think, “OK, you get to a certain level, you always got to work with this director who’s directed this many shows on Broadway, or the director that the institution is trying to put on, or has worked with, they have a relationship with.” The thing about me [is], you ain’t going to force me to work with nobody I don’t want to work with. That’s how I came up, and that’s how I’ma go out. But, to me, it is very important to give opportunities, to use my position and my privilege, because it is a very privileged position that I am in. I understand that. I understand that there’s not that many folks, period. It doesn’t even matter that I’m a Black woman, because that’s only a small, little percentage. But [there aren’t many] folks, period, who get to a place where they can say, “Oh, I’ve had three shows Off-Broadway, and two shows on Broadway, and this, that, and the other.” So, it’s like, how dare I not use this power and privilege to give opportunities to someone who is deserving? 

At the end of the day, it all comes down to opportunity. We, particularly in the theater, oftentimes it’s so myopic. They only want to pick and groom from people that they’re comfortable with. Now it’s not even a skin color thing. Sometimes it’s just people that they’ve worked for, or just a friend of a friend of a friend. I’m just like, “We have to dismantle that,” because this system is going to stay in place if we do not open the doors wider, and there’s so many people who are capable. Right now, they’re in the land of promise and potential, instead of the land of credits. Everybody’s like, “You can’t hire nobody for their first gig directing on Broadway, if they ain’t directed on Broadway.” The requirements that they had to have directed on Broadway to get the job, how are you going to be able to widen the group of directors? That’s just a cycle that ain’t going to allow any improvement in any way moving forward, when it comes to smashing the bar of institutionalized racism that is entrenched on Broadway.

And let’s not talk about being black and female.  How many black female directors are there? So, once again, that thing of, “Why Steve?” Why not? He has directed amazing things. We worked together. He directed an amazing production of “The Mountaintop,” one of the best productions I’ve ever seen. “The Mountaintop” has been done all around the world, and his production was one of the most effective, and emotional, and moving, and, quite frankly, right-on productions that I’ve ever seen and got a chance to witness. So, all of this is really just a love letter to Steve, and this understanding that it’s my responsibility to put folks on, because I know that the doors are often only let open a crack, especially when it comes to Black directors.

SB: 
I’m humbled, because, Katori, you are one of the most gracious artists I’ve ever seen in my life because you do not have to, but you choose to give an artist like myself opportunity. You’re right, it’s an institutional pedigree that is generally white, and few Black directors, period, woman, or man in the industry get the opportunity. It’s not because we don’t have the skill, not that we have not been trained, or don’t have the goods. That’s the conundrum: How do you get into that circle if it’s not for someone like you, who’s been very gracious? I feel privileged to have gotten the opportunity to exercise my craft at a high level, because you’re right, it’s a catch-22 situation. You can’t get in if you don’t have the experience, and if you don’t have the experience, you will never get the opportunity. Do you know what I mean? How do you ever break that?  I think Black folks find themselves in that position all the time, trying to break this institution’s wall.

NS: 
Uniquely, you guys are both from the south. Katori, you’re from Memphis, Tennessee, and Steve you’re from Little Rock, Arkansas. How does your southerness color your work?  How has being from the south colored your collaboration?

KH:
For me, southerness is the center of my universe, and it is what makes me unique. It is the lens that I live my own life [through]. With its heavy heritage, the good thing about the south is its love of family and its focus on community as a region. I think that is clearly reflected in the work that I do, where I am always writing about found families, if not blood families. I embrace this idea of, “framily”: people that become family. The idea that we are all connected, no matter if you live in a house or an apartment, we are all part of this tapestry that makes up the fabric of the world. Ensemble work is so important to the Katori Hall experience, Katori Hall universe. Also just tonally, [it’s the] ability to fuse tragedy and comedy all at the same doggone time, which I think is a very southern way of looking at that perspective, because of the immense amount of tragedy that we have gone through, and have had to work through, and push through.  

I think the other regions have it, but as you all know, with the history of slavery, and segregation, and quite frankly, the segregation still, compounded by police brutality, and lack of government support in terms of trying to heal our communities—it’s just a perspective that I think is so necessary. It’s interesting, having gone to New York to build my career, where, oftentimes I feel as though I suffer from what I call “regionalism.” There’s racism, classism, and sexism, and then there’s regionalism, where, with these liberals, and folks who think they’re critics, would not be able to critique my work in a way that was respectful, because they weren’t interested in being in the room with true southern Black folks. You can see it through the language that was used. I remember Ben Brantley said something along the lines of, “One of the characters spoke too poetically,” and he didn’t believe that. He didn’t believe that that character was speaking that way. I’ve seen that happen with other people’s work. Nikkole, I think that may have happened with your work. I think that’s happened with Issa Davis’ work. It’s a lot of Black women where, our characters are deemed to be too smart, and I think that has to do with this feeling of superiority that northern critics tend to have, when it comes to critiquing a work about southern folks, particularly southern Black folks.

NS: 
Now the south is cool. Everybody goin’ back. Everybody can see the beauty of the south now, in a way that they couldn’t before.

SB:
It’s been cool! I always say, “I was southern and country before country was cool.” Do you know what I mean? I remember coming to the Signature, seeing “Hurt Village”; it blew my mind. I had never seen the south—outside of Tennessee William’—representation onstage and Black folk, we were nowhere in it.  But then I came and saw “Hurt Village.” My friends, sister, brother, cousins, and grandmama were all on the stage. It was real, and it was poetic, it was human, it was nuanced, and I was so proud to see myself and people reflected. So, being with Katori, being from the south, understanding that language, understanding the culture was refreshing. For example, in rehearsal for “The Hot Wing King,” during a break, we’d play trap music and dance, and the southern energy was felt.  There was respect for the soul and spirit of the south. I thank you for that because you provided the vehicle. You represent us like no other. So, love.

KH:
It definitely made the collaboration so comfortable, the fact that not only was there this shared experience of being Black people in the world, but also Black people specifically from the south, who understand this idea, where we ain’t got to explain, and I can leave the room and he’ll know how to tell somebody how to pronounce, “What you said!”

NS:
As you’ve clearly been operating at a very high level, both in the theater world, and in the television world, what advice would you have for people, particularly directors trying to navigate both?

KH:
That’s a wonderful question, how to navigate both worlds successfully. It’s interesting, I think because of COVID19, things are changing drastically. However, I think it’s hard to break into either side, whether it’s theater or TV, and then you can add film into the mix, on that pie. I think, quite frankly, the best advice I can give people is actually not to rely too much on your reps; that you have to cultivate relationships on your own, with writers and actors you love and respect and want to work with. The industry is very, very tricky.

SB:
A shout goes out to Miss Dominique Morisseau! She is another person who has given me and other artists opportunity. Love.

KH:
Dominique and I always joke about this, we call it the “red dress syndrome.” It’s that thing that, they’ll just pick one, and it’s like, “Uh oh, you it. You got the red dress on,” and so all the shine will go to that one person, and that one person will be sent for all the jobs, and the phone will be ringing off the hook. I’m talking about directors, I’m talking about playwrights, I’m talking about actors, across the board. They only want one. They can only give a job to one. So, I think the folks who I have seen who have been able to navigate successfully between those two worlds are people who try to create their own connections and try to create your own opportunities and work.

SB:
That’s everything.

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