On Stage/ Performer Margo Hall
By Lou Fancher
Meet Margo Hall, a Bay Area–based actor of seemingly unlimited capacity.
As a founding member of Campo Santo, the multi-cultural ensemble formerly in residence at Intersection for the Arts, Hall has performed with multiple theater companies and has appeared in critically acclaimed films and on national networks and cable television. Also an educator, she has a BFA from Adelphi University and a MFA in Drama from Catholic University of America. Hall teaches at UC Berkeley and Chabot Community College, and has led courses at American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory School of Theater.
Hall grew up in Highland Park, Michigan. She lives in Oakland and, together with actor L. Peter Callender, is raising a son.
Hall is also a playwright. Less traveled on the writing path—so far—Hall is already making indelible marks with projects such as The People's Temple, which was written collaboratively with three other writers and premiered at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The production went on to Perseverance Theater (Juneau, Alaska) and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Her sophomore play, the one-woman show, Be Bop Baby: A Musical Memoir, is a semi-autobiographical piece that reflects the influence of her stepfather Teddy Harris, a jazz musician who worked in Motown and was music director for The Supremes.
"I'm interested in historical context—because I'm an educator and get nervous about what people are learning in school, what people have access to, especially when it comes to Black history," Hall says. "Part of me feels compelled to advocate for stories about Black historical figures that people may have never heard of."
She mentors young playwrights and says their plays educate not only audiences, but allow experienced playwrights and actors to learn what is happening in the younger generation's world. Acutely attuned to the danger of presenting Black life as a cultural monolith, she says, "I'm interested in countering the narrative of putting trauma onstage, especially on Black bodies. You go into spaces and there's a lot of trauma about Black people, but claiming Black joy and light—we need to see that, too."
Hall's experiences as an actor continue to resonate powerfully in the roles she accepts and the plays she selects as a director. She claims to have "fallen" into directing during a Word for Word/Campo Santo co-production of Joyride, based on a story by Native American writer and novelist Greg Sarris.
"The director dropped out last minute and my brothers in the company said, 'Well, Margo, you need to direct this, because you tell us what to do all the time,'" Hall says. "I went into it without any book knowledge, but since it was a story, that opened up instincts—I was totally uninhibited. I remember having a rehearsal where we just sang songs the whole night; we found a song for each time-shift. It became one of the most valuable rehearsals ever, we connected to the material through music and memory, and that's what the play was about."
Two experiences Hall had as a young Black actor working in a disproportionately white industry were equally sudden and unforgettable.
"When I was an undergrad I had had a teacher tell me that Black people shouldn't do Shakespeare because their tongues are too thick," she says. "I always thought it wasn't for me. I didn't do Shakespeare for a long time; until Cal Shakes."
During graduate school, she became a company member at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and says seeing Black actor Franchelle Dorn play Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra changed everything.
"When I saw her perform, I had never seen myself onstage like that," Hall says. "I had never seen a Black woman with that much power and presence. She is someone I always thought about when people said something was not right for me. I always went back to Franchelle to get inspiration to say, 'Oh, you're wrong.'"
Which brings the conversation to a critical question: Having achieved an appreciable level of success in multiple theater roles and positions, is it floating time, or is there more to explore?
The answer is a resounding, "Yes" to exploration. Hall's next direction—as artist advocate for Black theaters nationwide and initiator of the Fund for Black Theatre in the U.S. with Renaldo Billingslea and other Black artists—however, necessitates context.
Asked about designing a Black Theatre world, Hall starts, as storytellers do, with beginnings. After cultivating a Black theater network of actors, directors and playwrights and raising the aimed-for $1 million—transformation of systemic racism's infrastructures requires deep investment—first steps involve disavowing long-held assumptions about theater. Cast off the Euro-centric bias that says an actor performing Shakespeare, Ibsen or Chekov well is better than demonstrating excellence in the plays of Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Ishmael Reed, Marcus Gardley and other playwrights of color. Present plays that reflect the world's diversity, not all-Black versions of Twelfth Night.
"What does that mean to me, the audience, to changing people?" she asks. "You need to do things that are going to make us a better world. You need to give people access to different cultures so you can educate them to learn from history the accomplishments of what Blacks have done for this country; learn what immigrants have done."
No longer should non-traditional or token castings mean a play is upheld.
"I don't want to be in a Tennessee Williams play and in the play, they're talking about Black people and using the 'N' word," she says. "How in the hell am I going to be in that play? I'm just standing there listening to Big Daddy? I'm not saying you shouldn't do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, because you can learn about people like Big Daddy. But you don't need to put me in it so you can say you have Black people in it."
Theater, she emphasizes, is about changing people's perspectives so they become better human beings. A play like Black Odyssey moves people and shows Black people in joy, trauma, and in beauty.
"That's a play that makes a difference," Hall says.
Reaching deeper, institutions whose audiences are predominantly white must be alert to racial micro-aggression. When presenting plays that include Black bodies experiencing trauma or that depict slavery, theaters must build safety nets.
"You can literally walk out of the theater and be confronted by a white patron who wants to touch your hair," she says. "That's about education; it's about pre-talks; engaging the community before you throw something in their faces. Our hair as African Americans is our crown, a spiritual thing. Black culture exposed onstage—people might think they can come up and ask anything. No, you can't; go read a (Black history) book."
Initial script-in-hand readings with invited audiences must include people of color.
"It's always odd, because all the Black people are on the stage and it's all white people watching us," Hall says. "You feel that whole idea of patronage. You feel like you get nothing from the audience because they're afraid to respond or they don't understand the material. I say, 'Can you please get some Black people in that initial reading? We want to feel like we belong and we are home.'"
Publishers of reviews should also aim to present balanced voices.
"Who has the power?" Hall asks. If a white critic reviews Black Odyssey, a reviewer who is a person of color should be given an equal platform. "The way the world is set up, especially in our theater community, there are only so many voices that are heard. And a lot of those voices are white. I have nothing against her, but giving (SF Chronicle theater critic) Lily Janiak all of that power and then she'll speak to something that she does not have a clue about?
"We've had conversations and I'm like, 'Did you read the play? What did you get out of the play?' She can have her opinion, but you also need someone who may understand the culture better. You may not have to be a certain color, but you have to be a person who has exposed yourself or understands a lot of cultures. Not just Black, but Latinx, Asian. You've had variety. You've known people of these different cultures."
Hall says events of the last three months caused her to reflect and redirect all of her considerable energy away from educating white institutions and towards funding Black theaters. Fortunately, it doesn't mean audiences will not see Hall or recognize her influence on Bay Area stages.
She says about Gardley, "Whatever he's writing, I want to be a part of that."
High on her hoped-for list is directing Dominique Morrisseau's next play (Ain't Too Proud, Berkeley Rep, 2017). As this article goes to press, Hall is directing the 2020 Bay Area Playwrights Festival online premiere of playwright Tyler English-Beckwith's two-hander play, Mingus (July 17 and 26, playwrightsfoundation.org).