Interview: Playwright Katori Hall Reaches for King's Mountaintop

At just 30 years old making her Broadway debut, playwright Katori Hall was not around to experience Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in real time, but she became immersed in his legacy growing up in Memphis where he spent the last days of his life.

Her new play Mountaintop with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett pays tribute to Dr. King's last public appearance at Mason Temple in Memphis where he delivered his historic "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. The play has the same director as last year's Tony-winning Fences. Kenny Leon directed Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the revival of that August Wilson classic .

Hall received her bachelor's degree from Columbia University with Departmental Honors in African-American Studies and has a Master of Fine Arts in acting from Harvard University. She also studied playwriting at Juilliard under the tutelage of noted playwright Christopher Durang.

Her Mountaintop won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play for its London run last year. In September, Hall was tapped to become a charter member of the new Residency Five program with the Signature Theater Company in their new home on West 42nd St. in Manhattan.

Hall's Mountaintop opens at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on October 13th for just sixteen weeks. Previews began September 22nd, which would have been my parents' 60th wedding anniversary, so I felt a kinship with this play, deciding to see it on that day in particular in memory of them. Here is my interview with Katori Hall.

Question: Why did you decide to write a play about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Answer: Obviously, Dr. King himself was very afraid because of what he said in what turned out to be his last speech. That he had been to the mountaintop but may not get to the Promised Land with us. I wanted to imagine what he felt that last night in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel.

Q: What role did your mother play in your decision to write this play?

A: My mother did not go to hear Dr. King speak in Memphis on April 3, 1968 out of fear. The fear of violence. It has been one of her deepest regrets since he was assassinated the next day.

Q: Your play is about an imagined encounter on the last night of Dr. King's life inside a Memphis motel room after his Mountaintop speech. Why did you choose to make this about Dr. King and a motel maid instead of about Dr. King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, whom King described as his "closest friend and associate" in that last speech of his? Particularly, since you have Abernathy sharing room 306 with King. Although he is spoken of, we never see Abernathy in your play.

A: Because with the maid and Dr. King, there is the clash of two opposites as to their gender, their different ages, different generations, and their very different perspectives on the civil rights movement. The maid is an honorary Black Panther and a black nationalist. She is tired of Dr. King's nonviolent approach. I wanted to show this clash of ideas instead of two black men the same age with similar perspectives. I thought it would make for a more interesting play this way.

Q: There were reports Halle Berry was going to make her Broadway debut as the maid along with Samuel L. Jackson making his. Berry and Jackson would have been reunited for the first time since they appeared together in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever(1991) where she made her film debut. Why did she drop out?

A: Well, it's what has already been reported. She was dealing with child custody issues and would have to be in court a lot.

Q: If this show were to run longer than its 16-week engagement, might we see Halle Berry in it?

A: It's up to her and our producers. There would be a lot of factors coming into play. It would also depend upon who was playing Dr. King at that point and the chemistry involved.

Q: You open the play with Dr. King walking around his motel room talking to himself saying, "White America is going to hell."

A: Folklore has it that this was part of one of the last speeches he was working on at the time of his death. He was talking about America not taking care of all of God's children, the ongoing war in Vietnam, and the chasm between the haves and have-nots.

Q: Why did you make God a woman?

A: Going back to opposites again. It's he, he, he all the time. What if God were a she? What if God looked like Oprah? I wanted to challenge assumptions about what God looks like. Jesus probably didn't have blonde hair and blue eyes anyway growing up in the part of the world where he was.

Q: The audience has been talking back to the actors onstage during previews. How do you feel about this?

A: That was the whole point of this play and in my creating this play for the audience to feel as if they were actors in the play, too. It's the influence of the church with the preacher on the pulpit. The audience just normally falls into that call and response.

Q: Yet there is a lot of cursing going on. Especially by Angela Bassett as the maid. Won't this hurt you with church groups?

A: The church groups who have come during the previews, have applauded. Church people curse, too. It's about how we as human beings aren't perfect. The maid always apologizes for her cursing. That is her fatal flaw.

Q: The maid says Chicago's Rev. Jesse Jackson was "baptized in his blood," referring to Dr. King's and that the "baton was passed" to Rev. Jackson and others. Anything you want to say to Rev. Jackson who just celebrated his 70th birthday on October 8th, a few days before the official opening of Mountaintop ?

A: Happy Birthday! What an amazing milestone. I have always looked up to him, especially his running for president. I was inspired by it growing up.

Q: If he had lived, would or should have Dr. King run for president?

A: He might be so tired -- too tired to run. He had the right leadership skills to do it. But then there was the question of his being able to get enough funding to run and whether his popularity at the time was waning with his stance on the Vietnam War. It was much harder to run at that time. There were also a lot of fights going on as to whether he should stay in that leadership position.

Q: You are writing about civil rights and the civil rights movement in your plays. How, in your opinion, has the movement been faring?

A: It is very hard to be the president now. I was concerned that President Obama did not deal with jobs first but I understand why he went with healthcare first. The Congress and the Senate have not been very helpful. Sometimes I think it is because of his race. On a subconscious level on their part. Other presidents have not had to deal with the level of disrespect that Obama has encountered. For example, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) who shouted "You lie" to the president as he addressed the nation to talk about healthcare. That did not happen with President Bush. To me, the controversy over President Obama's birth certificate is like young black men being asked for their ID on the streets of New York City.

Q: What direction do you see the civil rights movement taking?

A: It has jumped over the pond and gone international. Technology, the internet have helped. Gay rights are now a civil rights issue. The civil rights movement has gone beyond race to multiculturalism and gender. It has become more democratized. There is not just one main leader as in Dr. King's day. There are many main leaders. We are all having to operate as our own Dr. Kings.

Q: This is an historic time on Broadway. Three black female playwrights will be represented in shows this season. This has never happened before. Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks has adapted George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess together with jazz musician/composer Deidre Murray, and then there's Stick Fly written by Lydia Diamond and produced by Grammy winner Alicia Keys with your director, Kenny Leon.

A: It feels amazing. We all know each other. We go to the same conferences. We go to the same parties. There is a sense of sisterhood. The circle rises together. Hopefully, this will not be the last time this will happen. It's important we reach out to others, too.

Q: Do you consider yourselves rivals?

A: No, we are not rivals. We are very different from one another. We are not writing about the same things, not telling the same stories.

Q: How did you become a playwright?

A: Out of frustration. I was taking acting at Barnard College in New York City, and my acting partner Kelli and I were given an assignment to go to the library and pull some scenes with two young black women in them like ourselves. We went through lots of books, and couldn't find any scenes. Neither could our teacher when we asked for help. As a struggling young actress, I decided something was missing in American theater and that I would write those roles.

Q: Have you been influenced at all by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson?

A: Yes. Most black playwrights are. For me, it is about his showing how spirituality lives in a naturalistic world.

Q: What's next for you?

A: My play, Hurt Village, is going into rehearsal in February, 2012 with the Signature Theater Company.

Q: Do you have any advice for would-be playwrights?

A: Become your dream, and not be told what you are supposed to do. Follow your intuition, listening to your dreams, your inner voice to guide you. Don't let others put thoughts into your mind that takes away your self-confidence.

Q: You started out as an actress, then switched to being a playwright. Are you still open to acting?

A: Yes, absolutely. (She laughs.) I'm always acting.