It’s not often that a young playwright addresses race issues head-on, garners critical acclaim from Broadway to Moscow, and signs on two Oscar-nominated actors for lead roles, but this is exactly what 30-year-old Katori Hall has done with her play, “The Mountaintop.”
The Memphis native drew upon her experience of growing up in the South to create her own version of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final night, and it is far from your typical history book account.
Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett star in the play, which paints Dr. King in a satirical, irreverent, and deeply original light.
ESSENCE.com chatted with Hall about her inspiration and hopes for the play, which is based on a fictional narrative between Dr. King and a motel maid the night before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in 1968.
ESSENCE.com: What drew you to writing a play about Dr. King, with a particular focus on the last few hours of his life?
KATORI HALL: I was inspired by a story my mother told me when I was very young. Dr. King came to Memphis in 1968 to speak at Mason Temple in support of the sanitation worker’s strike. She really wanted to go, and she asked my grandmother, who told her, ‘You know they gon’ bomb that church,’ and my mother never went. She didn’t get to hear his words, and that became one of the biggest regrets of her life. In 2007, I was inspired by this story and thought to write it down so that I could give my mother a chance to hear the words she never got to hear.
ESSENCE.com: What is one thing audience members may be surprised to learn about Martin Luther King Jr. after seeing this play?
HALL: That his real name was Michael, not Martin. Also, that the last thing he was working on was a large campaign for poor people. He came to Memphis to speak for sanitation workers because he saw a link between the two; speaking for equal pay and equal treatment on the job for sanitation workers was something he viewed as a natural extension of a bigger movement.
ESSENCE.com: How is it working with Angela Bassett and Samuel Jackson?
HALL: It’s fun. They come up to me and ask questions. They listen to me about my inspiration, they have great respect for the story, and they’re really working their butts off. For me, it’s been a joy. It’s really been a life-changing experience to see wonderful actors do your work.
ESSENCE.com: What would you like audience members to take away from this play?
HALL: In order to be great, you just have to care. You have to care about your world, community, and equality. People will watch the play and see that Dr. King did extraordinary things despite being ordinary. I think that regular people will see this and realize that despite everyday struggles, they can achieve great things.
ESSENCE.com: Any upcoming projects you are working on or would love to work on in the future?
HALL: I am working on a play I wrote called “Hurt Village,” about a young soldier who comes home from Iraq to find that the housing project where he lives is being demolished. The play is about how he tries to reconnect with his family, daughter, and community. “Hurt Village” is based on a real housing project in Memphis, about three minutes away from the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. King was assassinated, so in my work I’m focusing on a very specific area in Memphis. I see “Hurt Village” as a natural extension of “The Mountaintop.”
“The Mountaintop” is currently on Broadway. Click here for more information, and tickets.