Memphis-born playwright, journalist, and actress Katori Hall recently added another credit to her considerable resume: filmmaker. The author of critically acclaimed plays The Mountaintop and Hurt Village came home to Memphis this October to shoot her first short film, Arkabutla , the story of a professional bull rider on the black rodeo circuit. Hall, who calls herself a “barbecue-bleeding daughter of Memphis,” spoke to us about her inspiration and influences, as well as what’s next for her work.
What made you decide to write Arkabutla as a film?
The story was tattooed on my heart years ago. When I was 15 years old, I went to a Mississippi lake (not Arkabutla) with a friend and his uncle, who owned two jet skis. He was not able to provide paperwork to show ownership and those two jet skis were confiscated. I don’t think he ever got them back. That memory sat at the bottom of the writing well for a long time, until my mind gave birth to a bull-rider named Chauncey Wright.
In the movie ( Arkabutla ), Chauncey saves up his rodeo winnings to buy his son and daughter a jet ski. To see a man who literally risked his life to provide his children with a taste of flight, a taste of that eight-second dance he loved so much, was moving to me, and I thought it might be moving to an audience.
Melding what I created with that old memory was the old writer’s trick of writing what you know, to learn more about what you want to know. I think that stories choose their form. This one demanded to be a film. Film is such a visual medium. Oftentimes words are left by the wayside to make behavior center-stage, and in this sad situation, there were things left unsaid, but deeply understood.
How did your writing and development process differ, with Arkabutla , from the plays you’ve created?
Whether it’s the mind’s memory, dreams, or daydreams, a reel of images are flickering and connecting like a ticker tape across my brain. My mind is always in movie-mode. So actually the creation of Arkabutla was no different from anything else I’ve ever written; however, the articulation on the page is quite different. The format is different. The scenes are shorter. There are scenes with no dialogue. I think image first, dialogue third. It’s freeing. I like writing in visual synecdoche very much.
Where did the idea for Chauncey, a professional bull rider on the black rodeo circuit, come from?
There is a long and storied history of black cowboys and cowgirls, but their narratives have all but been erased from the history of American cowboy culture. The black rodeo world is a world that has been rarely explored, save for a few movies and docs, but my daddy is the one who first taught me about black cowboys. He would take me to the library every week to check out my 30 books, and one time he pulled down a book about a black cowboy and placed it on top of my pile. It was like reading a book about an alien. I just didn’t know they existed. As I grew up, I started researching the culture because I knew, come hell or high water, I wanted to make a movie about these unsung heroes and sheroes. I even started going to the Bill Pickett Invitational, the first all-black rodeo, whenever it came to Memphis. I just really admired these men and women. Seems like I’ve been writing this short film for decades now!
Did you know from the start that you wanted to make a movie in Memphis, with mostly local cast and crew?
I always tell people I’m so Memphis, I bleed barbecue. My producing partner Khaliah Neal knows how important it is for me to tell stories about my city by also using talent from my city, and she really laid the groundwork for me and connected me with those who would eventually become my “Rockstars.”
Memphis has a strong film community. It might be small, but it is mighty. I just wish the tax incentive to produce here was more attractive for productions. There are so many sons and daughters of Memphis who want to come back home and make our movies.
After Arkabutla , what is next for you?
I am moving into television slowly but surely. By year’s end, I hope to be working on an original series. Of course, I continue to write for the theatre. I want to expand outside of drama and tackle a big musical. In terms of film, Arkabutla was the warm-up: I am adapting my play Hurt Village into a feature-length film. God willing, I’ll be back in Memphis this time next year bringing to life another corner of my hometown for the big screen. I am indeed a barbecue-bleeding daughter of Memphis.
This interview has been edited for length. Read it in full at memphismagazine.com.