In April of this year, Katori Hall entered the PF In The Rough Reading Series, where she worked on her latest play The Mountaintop, which explores the arrival of a mysterious young maid to the room of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the evening before his death. Now, this stirring and timely play is in development at the upcoming Bay Area Playwrights Festival.
The staff of PF was surprised to discover that Katori has a personal connection to the subject, which she reveals in an exclusive PF Interview:
PF: What was the genesis of The Mountaintop?
KH: My mother grew up one block away from the Lorraine Motel. A 15-year-old mother of two, she had steered clear of Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. Her mother, Big Mama, had warned, “They gone bomb dat chuuch. You know dem folks out to kill him.” It would be the greatest regret of my mother’s life. The ominous presence of death was hard to ignore. Palpable, it was. Everyone knew it was coming. They just didn’t know when. The question of when presented itself on April 4th at 6:01 p.m. King was killed by an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
My mother’s regret along with the reasoning as to why she did not go that night has always stuck with me. A native Memphian, I grew up with this history only a stone’s throw away. It is my bloody heritage. The Mountaintop follows Dr. Martin Luther King on the night after he gives this great, prophetic speech.
PF: What are the challenges of re-imagining a moment in the life a real person who is so revered?
KH: I tried very much to imagine him as a human, not a God. This is the uber-American hero. A Christ-like figure to some. But I was always searching for the King, warts and all. As Michael Eric Dyson said in his recent book "April 4, 1968", "The wish to worship him into perfection is misled; the desire to deify him tragically misplaced. The scars of his humanity are what makes his achievements all the more remarkable." It's let's us off the hook to deify him. There is greatness in all of us. We all can carry on his dream.
But as a playwright I just had to imagine, "what would a human being do in those given circumstances?" This was a man whose life was constantly under fire, quite literally. His house had been bombed...he had already been stabbed. He knew he was a marked man. He always talked about his pending death, even joked about it sometimes with his advisers. A lot of people are not privy to this, but King was quite depressed those last few months of his life. He had taken up smoking to deal with the mounting stress and responsibilities of leading a movement. He was heavily criticized for leading a garbage strikers march in Memphis that had unfortunately turned violent, a young 16 year old boy named Larry Payne was killed. He was deeply troubled in a way his colleagues had never seen him after that. He came back to Memphis to do it again. He was in the midst of planning another march on Washington, his Poor People's Campaign and he was there in Memphis for the garbage strike workers because their quest for a living wage paralleled his quest for a living wage for all Americans.
The given circumstances of his life at the time, provided me with rich material to create an entire man...not the I HAVE A DREAM man, but a man dealing with depression, dissension in his organization, and pending death.
PF: You have a background as both an actor and a playwright. Which came first? How did you make the transition?
KH: That's the old question, "what came first, the chicken of the egg?" I got my degree in acting first, but I probably started playwriting first, in fact, I've always written. I've been publishing articles in newspapers since I was 14 years old, so I always knew I was a writer. My first foray into journalism cultivated my storytelling and listening skills. Journalists are forever interviewing people, listening to the cadences and rhythms of authentic speech. I always had a good ear for the best quotes and I'm sure that's helped me create characters who have a way with words.
Five years ago when I took my first acting class at Columbia, I went up to my teacher and asked, “Do you know of any good scenes from plays that occur between two young black women?” She stood there perplexed. 10 seconds went by…then 20….then 30….a whole minute flew by and she couldn’t come up with one answer. “Gee, Katori, I’m so sorry, but I can’t think of one…I mean, there is a scene in Raisin but the two characters are not young…maybe August Wilson? No…most of his characters are male…I’m sorry, Katori. I just can’t think of one.” She walked away. At that moment I said to myself, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to write some then.” I wrote from an intense need to see myself and my experience reflected honestly onstage. It was quite easy to make the transition.
PF: Do you ever act in your own work, or write plays with the intention that you would perform them?
KH: I haven't acted in my work yet...only in the performance poetry bits I've written. I've just started thinking about which of my characters I would love to play. I could play the hell out of some my female roles! They are all little slivers of me mixed up with other folks I know. I've toyed around with the idea of writing a one woman show, but I like people, too much. I would hate to be up onstage by myself. Plays remind me of the time I would play make-believe with my sister and my friends reimagining the world as children often do. I like that feeling of creating life--new life--with other people.
PF: What's up next for you?
KH: I will be back in the Bay (Yah!) doing the Bay Area Playwrights Festival this summer. I'm quite excited about that. My first play, Hoodoo Love is being published by DPS. Please check it out. www.dramatists.com. I was recently commissioned by the Women's Project with the support of the New York Council of the Arts. I am finishing up an adaptation of Antigone set in post-Katrina New Orleans for Fluid Motion Theater. And I am at Juilliard right now in their playwriting program continuing to grow as a writer, so as you can see I'm busy as all get out! www.katorihall.com