Playwright Katori Hall. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from New York —
There are two portraits prominently displayed in the Memphis, Tenn., living room of Emma "Big Mama" Leake, the grandmother of Katori Hall. One is of Jesus, the other of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Hall says it was King's portrait that haunted her.
"I didn't want him to be on the wall," says the 30-year-old playwright. "I wanted him to be flesh and blood to me and to others."
Her play "The Mountaintop," which opens Thursday on Broadway, directed by Kenny Leon, is the result of that ambition. And indeed, her King, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is all too human in a drama that unfolds on April 3, 1968 — the night before the civil rights leader was assassinated — in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. When the play opens, King has just returned from a speaking engagement, hungering for coffee, a pack of Pall Malls and relief from a full bladder and the burden of being "Dr. Martin Luther King." A welcome distraction comes in the form of Camae, a maid played by Angela Bassett, who delivers the coffee — and a lot more.
The drama, which Hall wrote in 2007, had a world premiere in London, where it received the Olivier Award. "Mountaintop" now comes home, in a sense, to audiences that are much more proprietary, not to mention protective, of King. To say that Hall takes liberties is an understatement. Not a word uttered by Jackson is attributable to the man he is playing, though the play's title is taken from King's prescient speech in which he says he has been to the mountaintop but may not reach the promised land with his flock before he dies.
A complex character emerges from the moment he takes his shoes off and sniffs his socks. He is a man who can flirt with Camae one moment and be filled with fear and dread the next.
"I didn't want any of the saintliness, all perfect and shiny," says Hall. "As a post-civil-rights baby, I'm very cognizant of the great responsibility that has been passed down to me, but I can also look through the lens of history in a different way. It allows me to be a little more clinical, more honest, sometimes a little irreverent while treating the subject matter with utmost respect."
Hall says she is "absolutely nervous" about the reception to the play, especially from King's family and leaders of the civil-rights movement, none of whom has seen it. Still, she betrays little of that anxiety in the lobby of the theater after a recent emotionally received matinee preview of "Mountaintop." For a young writer about to make her Broadway debut, Katori appears relaxed as she makes her way through the freighted topics of race and religion. Laughter frequently punctuates the Southern-flavored cadences of her native Memphis.
A good part of her feistiness can be traced to her mother, Carrie Mae Golden, a healthcare worker who inspired "Mountaintop" and the character of Camae. Carrie Mae was 15 on that April day, desperate to attend King's speech at the Mason Temple and forbidden to do so by Big Mama because of the palpable threat of violence in the air. Hall says her mother still regrets not having seen King that night. But his subsequent martyrdom — blocks from her house — inspired an angry and determined political activism in her that she passed down to her headstrong, ambitious and youngest of four daughters. The girls' father was LaSalle Hall Jr., a factory worker.
After studies at Columbia, the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard and Juilliard, Hall decided her vocation was "story teller." She says that she was as influenced by the writings of novelist Tom Wolfe as by those of playwright August Wilson and that she was lucky to have found a mentor in the playwright Lynn Nottage ("Ruined"). From Wolfe, she learned the "way language can explode on a page"; from Nottage, a social activism melded with a great humanity; and from Wilson, an African American "blood memory" that liberated her to experiment with spirituality in her work.
Indeed, through the character of Camae, Hall invents a theology that, without giving too much away about the play's fantastical second part, features a supreme being that bears a striking resemblance to Oprah Winfrey. It is an antithetical approach to traditional religion that has its roots in a rebellious little girl who slipped secular books between the pages of the Bible to read during church. "I thought something's not right here," she says of the Baptist services of her youth. "I found it very patriarchal, sexist and sometimes classist. God is not that. To me, God is an energy, a spirit, which is here on Earth among us, within us. We just have to find it, embrace it. It's what makes you have a sense of passion and purpose on Earth. "