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American Voices: Katori Hall

In some ways, Katori Hall has come a long way from her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. But she’s stayed true to her roots.

While Hall’s plays are performed on Broadway, Memphis remains her focus. Her works include the Broadway hit The Mountaintop, a fictional exploration of Martin Luther King’s last night, and more recently the gritty drama Hurt Village, about a family being relocated from a dilapidated housing project on the verge of demolition.

On this week’s American Voices, Hall shares her thoughts on entrenched, cyclical poverty in Memphis and gives her prescription of what it might take to end such suffering, both in Memphis and across the country.

Hear more from Katori Hall about the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy to Memphis in our web exclusive clip.

KATORI HALL:  Memphis is by this amazing river, Old Man River, Mississippi River. It’s like the Nile. This place should be very fertile with a lot of dreams and opportunities. But unfortunately, people in Memphis are extremely thirsty and they’re thirsty for– for jobs, mostly.

And when you don’t have a job, how can you have a dream for yourself? How can you pass on a dream to the– the– your offspring, when you can’t even consistently put food on the table?

And so for me, I think it’s more about changing the mindset and breaking down the assumptions around poverty, and also breaking down the assumption that people who are poor want to be poor. They don’t wanna be poor. They don’t wanna be poor at all. Like, poor people are often some of the hardest workers. They just get caught in– a trap sometimes and it has a lot to do with the environment that they’re living in.

Anytime I’m– I’m writing I often set a lot of my– my work in Memphis. My play Hurt Village is about a real housing project that existed in Memphis, Tennessee. That was eventually torn down. And this idea of tearin’ down a housing project, relocating everyone– people think that this idea will lead to a deconstruction of poverty. But I think the absolute opposite is true. What you’re doing is you’re just sweeping it to the other side of the corner.

When we were doin’ research– more research for Hurt Village, I ended up speaking with, you know, the principal of Humes– which is the school that a lot of the Hurt Village kids would’ve went to. And– this amazing principal, you know, had this great– teaching moment for us. You know, he asked me a question.

“Do you read?” Yes. “Do you read really well?” I’m like, well yes I read really well. I– you know, why is this man asking me this question? He then asked the last question. “Would you read that well if you had lions chasing you?” Well, I wouldn’t be reading at all. I’d be runnin’, right? He said, “My kids have the lions of poverty chasing them. They have the lions of gangs chasing them. They have the– the lions of health issues chasing them.

These kids on a daily basis are dealing with obstacles that you couldn’t even dream of. How can– how can you concentrate on words and math problems when you’re just trying to survive?

I am not a politician. I am a playwright. I do not feign thinking that I can create policy that will change the world. But I can create stories that can move people, hopefully move people to action, but mostly move people to just having a more open heart, which I think is the first step towards action.

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