While the arts has acknowledged its problem with diversity and talks about making things better, there remains a lack of action, according to the writer of the new musical about Tina Turner.
Diversity and inclusion is one of the the most urgent debates in theatre and the arts more widely, but Hall fears it may not get beyond talking.
“That requires a lot of giving up,” she said. “Giving up your seat to let people sit at the table who haven’t always been allowed to sit … that’s often not on the stage, but where the decisions are made. That’s on the board. How many black artistic directors does the UK theatre scene have? I’m always asking, are we performing inclusion, are we performing diversity? Or are we actually doing it. Let’s see if the acknowledgment phase shifts through into the action phase.”
Hall has written the book for a new show directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which tells the turbulent story of Turner. It starts with her troubled childhood, stardom and an abusive relationship with her husband, Ike; the wilderness years when she was performing at McDonald’s openings; and then her triumphant second act, becoming a superstar in her 40s.
It is an inspiring story, Hall said. “Without Tina Turner there wouldn’t be a Beyoncé, there wouldn’t be a Rihanna, there wouldn’t be a Katy Perry. There wouldn’t be this shining example for so many young female performers and singers to look up to in the way she was so authentically herself.”
Hall is as American as they come, born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, about an hour away from Turner’s home town of Nutbush. Yet it is the UK that changed her life after the theatre director James Dacre asked if he could stage a play she sent him, at the tiny Theatre503 above a pub in Battersea, south London.
The play, which starred David Harewood as Martin Luther King and Lorraine Burroughs as a hotel maid bringing him late-night coffee, won an Olivier for best new play. It transferred to the West End and, in 2011, Broadway with Samuel L Jackson and Angela Bassett as its stars.
A first draft of the book for Tina Turner the Musical, by Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins, already existed and she agreed to come on board to provide a new draft after being reassured she could tell the true story of Turner’s life, not a sugar-coated one.
“This is a grown-up musical, this is not Phantom of the Opera,” she said. “We are really going to be brutally honest.”
Lloyd is one of the UK’s most versatile and respected directors, with work that includes Mamma Mia! on stage and on screen, and her all-female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar.
The show will feature the songs of Turner, but Hall uses the term bio-musical rather than jukebox musical. “Me and Phyllida we always say, we’re trying to do August Wilson and Beyoncé at the same time.”
The show will not avoid the violence in Turner’s life, said Hall. “Understanding the roots of the cycle of violence is something that is very important to us and quite frankly, very important to Tina. She was like, ‘I don’t know if you’ll be able to do my life, I don’t want the Disney version’. I said ‘no, we’re giving you the Katori Hall version!’.”
The show will star the American actor Adrienne Warren, making her West End debut, as Turner, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, last on stage as Laertes in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican, as her abusive husband, Ike.
Hall said London was the perfect place for the show, given Turner’s huge fanbase. “If Broadway want it, they want it. We’ll see.”
Hall, who is also developing a television version of her play Pussy Valley, about pole dancers at a Mississippi strip club, said there could be no better timing for the story of Turner’s life.
“The #MeToo moment we are living in; a lot of women who are coming to terms with the intense oppression and sexism not only in the entertainment industry but in our world; the fact that so many women are standing up and saying this happened to me, too. I would say Tina was one of the first to start #MeToo, in that she was honest about the abuse she suffered and was willing to have people look at her life and how raw and vulnerable she was.”
Just as the creative industries talk about the need for change around diversity, Hall said she worries about the same questions around #MeToo.
“Will the acknowledgment shift into action to create a situation where women won’t have to be afraid? And if they do speak up something will be done, there will be consequences.”
With Donald Trump in power she admitted: “I’m not holding my breath.”
• Previews of Tina at the Aldwych theatre, London, begin on 21 March.