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Triumphant playwright Katori Hall talks about 'The Mountaintop'

LINDA ARMSTRONG Special to the AmNews | 11/28/2011, 2:50 p.m.
Katori Hall has a lot to celebrate these days, as her new play "The Mountaintop,"...
Triumphant playwright Katori Hall talks about 'The Mountaintop'

Katori Hall has a lot to celebrate these days, as her new play "The Mountaintop," about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is playing on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on West 45th Street. The play stars Samuel L. Jackson in the role of King and Angela Bassett in the role of Camae, a maid at the Lorraine Motel, who waits on him the evening before he is assassinated.

Hall recently took the time to sit down and speak with the AmNews about her new, very creative work, which creates a scenario to imagine what might have happened on the night before King was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

What inspired you to write this play?

Hall: My mother told me a story when I was about 10 or 11 years old, a story about when Dr. King came to speak in support of the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple and how she wanted so badly to go. She loved Dr. King and just wanted to be in his presence.

She asked her mother if she could go and Big Mama said, "You know someone is going to bomb that church." There had been rumors that someone was after him. And so my mother never got the chance to hear those words, "I might not get there with you," and the next day he was assassinated. That was the greatest regret of my mother's life, that she never got to hear him speak. My family and I are all from Memphis.

How did you research the story and come up with this scenario?

I knew the story I wanted to tell. I started reading everything I could and going to museums. At museums you can get the personal artifacts, like learning that he actually did send Coretta an artificial flower close to his death, and the fact that he smoked.

How did you expect audiences to react to the Camae character?

I felt they would be surprised because they don't have anything to base her on-Camae is so wild and so out there. Ultimately, people find her refreshing because she challenges Dr. King, she pulls things out of him. She allows him to go into his innermost feelings. It was the best way to use this fictional character to build out someone we have all grown to love and who we think we know.

What image of King do you want your audience to have?

I want people to leave with a complex image of Dr. King. The fact that he smoked sometimes or had a hole in his sock, the fact that he had his own intimate struggles-it doesn't take away from the Nobel Peace Prize. It doesn't take away from Selma and the bus boycotts. It actually adds to it because you see an ordinary human being changed by the world.

It is unconventional to make God a Black woman and to have a cursing angel. What made you decide to take that path with the story?

Why not? You grow up a young Black woman in America and you go to church and open the Bible and God is always a he. I remember a children's book that my grandmother gave me and everybody in the children's Bible was white-I knew there had to be some Black people back then. So I decided, why can't the God look like Oprah? Everybody would win a car every day; we'd get free trips to Australia. I wanted to keep challenging the notion of a white male patriarch.

How was it working with director Kenny Leon and watching him bring your vision to life on Broadway?

It was a dream to work with Kenny Leon because I had seen everything he had done and I knew he had worked very closely with August Wilson. He has a great respect for actors and creating a family atmosphere in the rehearsal room. It was a tremendous honor; he cared so much about storytelling and making the actors comfortable, so I learned a lot watching him work with them.