Katori Hall Makes It to 'The Mountaintop'

PHOTO: Playwright Katori Hall poses for a portrait in front of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York, Sept. 21, 2011.

At 30 years old, playwright Katori Hall finally feels comfortable in her own skin. As an African-American growing up in a predominately white neighborhood in Memphis, Tenn., Hall said she was always trying to be the "good" version of herself.

For years she was like a character in a play, presenting herself in a variety of ways depending on the scene and the people in it. Now as "The Mountaintop," her play starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, has landed a home on Broadway, Hall is no longer creating roles to please others.

"You think you're supposed to hide your quote on quote blackness," Hall said about how she once thought. "Now I'm more settled into who Katori is. I embrace that aspect of my culture, my history and my background. I'm actually the same person in front of a black person as I am in front of a white person. I'm very authentic. Very southern. A little sister girlish."

Getting "The Mountaintop" to Broadway has been a journey for Hall. Surprisingly, it wasn't even her dream when she started writing the play about the final night of Martin Luther King Jr.'s life in 2007. She didn't feel Broadway was for her considering what was playing and the cost of attending a show. The inspiration behind Hall's play was her mother, Carrie Mae Golden. In 1968 a young Carrie Mae begged her mother to take her to hear King speak at the Mason Temple. However, her mother refused because she feared the church was going to be bombed. Not hearing King speak became one of Hall's biggest regrets. Hall named the female role in her play, Camae, short for Carrie Mae, as a way to give her mother the chance she never had with King.

Last year Hall became the second black writer (following August Wilson) and fourth woman in 34 years to win the Oliver Award, Britain's equivalent to the Tony, for Best New Play. In spite of the win, Broadway critics and theater-goers have been tougher, and have given the play mixed reviews because of its fictionalized portrayal of Martin Luther King. One critic has been Bernice King, King's youngest child, who was only 5 years old when her father was assassinated.

Although she's said she loves the overall message of the play, she isn't fond of the colorful language, because she doesn't believe her father spoke that way. Hall understands why King would want to hold on to a particular image but said there is proof through wiretapping and people who worked with King that he did use "raw language" behind closed doors. Hall does, however, agree with King when she says that her father would be dismayed by what's happening today. She looks at the poverty level of African-Americans, the wars the country has been fighting and the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, which she said proves the chasm between the haves and the have nots is widening.

"The things he was fighting against, I feel have just gotten worse," Hall said. "How are we going to change the world? How are we going to pass the baton? Do we even have the baton in our hands? Do we even have the capability to pick it up? I ask those questions a lot when I look at the world today."

When it comes to President Obama and how he's fairing, Hall broke out into her infectious laugh and said, "Don't ask me that question!" Then she turned serious and said that she understands people's frustration, but believes that because he is a black man he has received a lot of unnecessary things thrown his way.

Observing and analyzing human behavior and how it fits into the world isn't new for Hall. Her mother once called her a "weird child," but Hall prefers to use the word "imaginative." She grew up in a working-class household as the youngest of four daughters. Her mother was a phlebotomist, and her father worked in factories. For fun, she would spend hours by herself making up stories and had about 15 imaginary friends. In 2003, she graduated from Columbia University with a degree in African-American studies and creative writing. From there, she went on to do theater training at Harvard and playwriting at Julliard.

It was while studying at Columbia that she realized the lack of roles for African-American women. She was given an assignment to pull some scenes with two young African American women and couldn't find any. It was in that moment that she knew she had to write. She considers that epiphany the thing she is the most proud of.

"I took a chance. I didn't know what the road was going to be like. We make the road by walking, and I decided to become my dream instead of lying there and dreaming about it," Hall said.

"The Mountaintop" is just the beginning. In February the Signature Theatre in New York will produce "Hurt Village," Hall's play set in her hometown about a soldier who returns from Iraq and discovers his neighborhood is being demolished. If that should eventually come to Broadway, Hall would be just fine with that, now that she feels a part of the community.

"I must say I feel very satisfied," Hall said. "I feel as though -- and I'm very proud of this -- that I have been able to make Broadway accessible to a new generation in terms of putting up a story that all different kinds of people want to see. It doesn't matter if you're white, black, old or young. Everyone is coming to see 'The Mountaintop.'"

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