Katori Hall writes historical fictions rooted in the conflicts of race, including her Olivier Award-winning play The Mountaintop, which imagined the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the modern-day drama Hurt Village, a slice-of-life depiction of a Memphis housing project.
Her latest play, Children of Killers, now being presented at the Castillo Theatre, focuses on the sons of Hutu men who participated in the Rwanda genocide and how they react when their fathers come home. TheaterMania recently sat down with Hall to talk about the origins of the piece and what surprised her when she visited the East African country.
THEATERMANIA: Did you go to Rwanda with the idea of writing a play or did the idea come from your experience there?
KATORI HALL: Well, I wanted to write a play that was about the genocide but wasn't a genocide play with people being cut to bits onstage. I just wanted to talk about the now of genocide, the consequences of it, and how nations are able to move forward. When I went to Rwanda in 2009 and experienced a country that was trying to push forward towards the good, it was something I felt I really needed to write about because I feel like every country in this world is at different points of truth and reconciliation in history. Rwanda was full of contradictions, and the trauma was so present. I wanted to articulate the experience of young people and also young people whose fathers and mothers were perpetrators in the war. Oftentimes, we focus on the survivor narrative which totally makes sense, but we all know in history there are different narratives. I wanted to start weaving in this story.
TM: Did you talk to Hutus who participated in or were related to people who participated in the genocide?
KH: I never talked to a young person whose father was Hutu specifically, but I did see the performance of forgiveness in Rwanda. I went to this association where perpetrators and survivors in villages got together every Thursday and talked. This was a village that was adamant about moving forward. "Yeah, your neighbor was a killer, but we need to sit down and have some kind of common ground." What was interesting was this man who had killed many members of this young woman's family came late to one meeting. As he came up the hill, he reached out to shake her hand, but she didn't want to shake his hand.
TM: How did that moment affect you?
KH: I started imagining this guy's kid and what did he think of him. And then I ended up riding back side-by-side with this man. I sat next to someone who killed I don't know how many people, and he seemed normal. He seemed joyous. People laughed at all of his jokes. He had an amazing shirt that I really loved. He was charming and likable. That was what got me thinking that these people did monstrous acts, but they were people. My director, Emily Mendelsohn, says this is a play not about monsters, but about children.
TM: Did you meet anyone else there that inspired the play?
KH: I met a man who was the sole survivor of this church massacre of 40,000 people. He had a dent in his head where they had shot him. When I met him in 2009, he was moving forward with his life, but he would talk about how they were still torturing him because he was the living, walking wounded. I always feel like revolutions and movements of hatred go up and down. There's a moment when the fire's stamped out but not completely. That's why I think progress goes back and forth and hatred as well. Sometimes, unfortunately, hatred is more powerful than progress.