Playwright Katori Hall’s new play, The Mountaintop, about the final hours of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before he was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, April 3, 1968 has been the subject of controversy. The play opened on Broadway a couple weeks ago — one of a few plays written by black women this season — to mixed reviews.
theGrio caught up with the playwright, who’s currently traveling, to discuss the inspiration behind her new Broadway show starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, why she believes her play has inspired such strong reactions from audiences, and what she’s working on next.
theGrio: Your play The Mountaintop is very much your mother’s story giving a black feminine spin-off on the lore of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. Was this part of your intention — giving a voice to black women, that’s often lost, in the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement?
Katori Hall: In many ways, yes. When I was young my mother told me of how she wasn’t able to see Dr. King speak when he was in Memphis. She has always regretted that. So for the first part of your question, yes, I am putting Camae — with all her qualities — in the room with Dr. King and seeing what happens. I want to be careful not to put something on the play that it isn’t attempting to do. Camae asks him hard questions. She challenges him. But she isn’t a stand-in for the amazing women who fought in the movement. Those stories need to be told though.
WATCH NBC NIGHTLY NEWS COVERAGE OF ‘THE MOUNTAINTOP’:
Your play has ruffled some feathers among the Civil Rights Generation — from men and women alike. Why do you believe you’ve gotten such strong reactions from them?
I think we have a harder time then we think at viewing Dr. King as a person, a full human. And when we do admit he’s a person, it’s begrudgingly, as if to face his humanity — with all its flaws — Dr. King loses power. I think that this is a particular problem in the black community. We deify our leaders to the point where everyday citizens feel that they can’t attain those same positions in society.
It is with purpose that Dr. King says, in the play, “I am a man. Just a man”, because he was just a man. That idea is scary. It means that, looking at all he accomplished, if he was just a man, what does that say about us? We have the same stuff that Dr. King had. We could do just as much, if not more, for our community, for our country. Why don’t we? What is holding us back?
I also think that my work will just get strong reactions from people because of its nature. People have a hard time understanding black comedy. ‘The regular theater audience’ is now sitting in a room with black people from all over the country, many whom may never attend theater, especially Broadway. It’s a different set of rules, a different aesthetic, a different culture. What happens when we allow for that, when we give room for that?
Earlier this year the actress Viola Davis (who starred in the film The Help) said in an interview that (I’m paraphrasing) to the effect: black audiences are often more interested in image than substance. From your observation, is Davis’s assessment accurate?
Hard to say. I think it’s difficult to talk about the black audience as a monolith. Within the “African-American” community there is a ton of diversity. But when it comes to something like our leaders, yes, an image is easier to digest then the reality behind it. This isn’t just a problem, however, for black people. Think of the way we speak about our “Founding Fathers” or the fact that there is a Christopher Columbus Day.
We, all of us, not just black people, have to be able to negotiate the genius of a person and their humanity. Miles Davis was abusive to his wife. That doesn’t make him any less a brilliant musician. But how do we hold both those things in our mind at once?
I read somewhere that you wrote this play, partly, out of frustration with the thinly drawn characters available for black actresses. Is this true? Do you think more black actresses should be writing the roles they want to play rather than lamenting systemic problems of the industry?
I will always advocate for more writers, but I don’t think, however, that simply having more will fix this issue. There are a ton of other writers out there, waiting for their work to be produced and it isn’t happening. There are good plays, but there isn’t interest because they aren’t “commercial.” I think what we need is for people of color to see the power behind cultural capital. The arts are tools for a people to talk about themselves. People of color have to use this tool. We need more producers of color.
Look, for instance, at the regional theater system. Upper-middle class white people primarily run it. I’m speaking, specifically, of the major institutions. But then, you look at the boards of these groups and it’s the same. We cannot expect real change until the top is changed. The question should be, how do we create a system that allows for true diversity from top to bottom. Only then will these writers be produced. Only then will there be more roles.
Above all, what would you like audiences to take away from The Mountaintop?
I want them to look around themselves during the show and see all the people sitting there that have the potential to do just as much, if not more, than Dr. King did.
What are you working on next? Are you plugged-in to social media so we can follow your promising career?
Next, I’m opening a play at Signature Theater in NYC, called Hurt Village. Hurt Village is a real housing complex not far from the Lorriane Motel. I’m fascinated by Memphis and the fact that it’s not far from the place Dr. King was shot; you’ll find a housing complex in the throws of “revitalization.” There’s some friction there. The show will open in February.
The Mountaintop, written by Katori Hall, is at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater in NYC and will run through Sunday, January 15, 2012.