Playwright Katori Hall's career takes off

By Mark Kennedy

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Sept. 21, 2011 file photo, playwright Katori Hall poses for a portrait in front of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York. Hall wrote the play "'The Mountaintop," starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, opening Thursday, Oct. 13, and running through Jan. 15.

Charles Sykes, file, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Katori Hall plops down in a restaurant booth and promptly orders a Bloody Mary. It's 1 p.m.

The playwright confesses that while her career is going great, her personal life is a bit of a mess. In the space of just three days, she's lost her transit card, her debit card and, just today, her cellphone.

"I'm like, 'What is going on?' This must be a sign of good luck," the 30-year-old says. "It better be."

It likely is: Hall's play "The Mountaintop" starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett is about to open on Broadway, the off-Broadway Signature Theatre Company has invited Hall to a five-year residency and promises to produce three of her works, a collection of her plays is about to be published, and the Lark Play Development Center, where her talent was nurtured, threw a party in her honor.

"The Mountaintop," a fictional drama set on the night before the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was the winner of the best new play Olivier award in London last year, beating out "Jerusalem." Hall was the first black woman to win the honor.

Hall's King is not the icon with the rhythmic voice we are used to revering. In the play, he talks colloquially, uses profanity several times, shows vanity, smokes, alludes to sex outside marriage and is even heard urinating off stage. For some in the audience, this may smack of blasphemy.

"I know there are people who feel as though I'm being naive and I'm being disrespectful by humanizing King. It's only dangerous if people want to keep him in a box and keep him as a statue. It's so needed and necessary to pull him out of his tomb, this museum that has been created," Hall says.

In the play, King is visited in his room at the Lorraine Motel by Camae, a mysterious woman who delivers room service coffee, which sparks a discussion of his life and decisions. Hall says she wanted to bring King close.

"We need to pull him out and make him flesh and blood, make him believable. There is a rush to protect him and even lie about him in order to keep up this veneer of righteousness. It's very dangerous because I think it gives the wrong message to a new generation who are coming up who think that they have to be perfect in order to change the world," says Hall.

Hall, a native of Memphis, Tenn., started writing the play in 2007, inspired by her mother, who grew up around the corner from the Lorraine Motel. When her mother was 15, she was told she couldn't attend King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech the night before he was killed because her family feared there would be violence.

The character of Camae was named in honor of Hall's mother, Carrie Mae, and the play is in many ways a chance to give her mother the chance to again meet King.

She says she wrote a draft of the play quickly, before diving deep into the scholarship of King. "I didn't want to procrastinate. I find that writers say, 'Oh, I'm doing research.' You can do research for four years and never write a line."

She later consulted such works as "And the Walls Came Tumbling Down" by Ralph Abernathy, read and watched King's speeches, sifted through Poor People's Campaign literature and examined a partial FBI file on King that includes wiretaps. For the Broadway run, Hall has a new cast and has teased out King's controversial anti-Vietnam war stance.

King's daughter Bernice has discussed the play with its director, Kenny Leon, and noted that while the family didn't love the innuendo or colorful language in the play, King's message still resonates. The playwright herself is at pains to say that her work never attempts to pass itself off as truth.

"I have, I think, really saved myself by being extremely creative in how I tell the story," she says.

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