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Playwright Katori Hall's career takes off

Katori Hall plops down in a restaurant booth and promptly orders a Bloody Mary. It's 1 p.m.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Leon agrees, predicting this is just the first of Hall's many successes. "There's poetry in her writing, there's strength and courage in her writing, and she's just a bold artist who has put on the page what's in her head," he says. "I think that this is just the beginning of that which we know as Katori Hall."

Hall graduated from Columbia University in 2003 with a major in African-American studies and creative writing, and learned her trade at the American Repertory Theatre Institute and at the Juilliard School. She turned to writing plays after feeling stymied as an actress.

"I started writing because I got so frustrated that there weren't enough plays that had roles for young black women in them." Her first play, "Hoodoo Love," was developed by Lynn Nottage and received its world premiere off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2007. She says Broadway wasn't necessarily the goal.

"I always felt like Broadway was not for me — in terms of ticket price, in terms of what was on there," she says. "I never saw myself reflected in the mirror of the Great White Way."

"The Mountaintop" is her fourth play — it's also her first attempt at a two-character work — and she's written three others in the past two years, most set in Memphis and featuring characters speaking in the city's rich dialect. The Signature will produce her "Hurt Village" in February, which looks at how nine characters deal with the demolition of a city housing project.

"People call it my epic," she says.

These days, Hall finds herself daily offering guidance to the actors and creative team at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, where "The Mountaintop" is playing. She's at the theater so much that she has her own dressing room.

Watching Bassett and Jackson, who was an usher at King's funeral, work on her play has been its own reward. She calls it a kind of acting master class and says it inspires her to consider one day acting in her own plays. And though she's easily the youngest person in the room, Hall says she's not dismissed by her elders. "I think the play shows that I have a mature soul. So they've embraced me."

While some have pointed to Hall's Broadway debut — plus Lydia R. Diamond's upcoming "Stick Fly" — as a sign that Broadway is embracing more diverse voices, she's unconvinced.

"I'm very hesitant to be like, 'Oh, my God. Everything has changed' because of this year. Give it three more years," she says, pointing out that only 17 percent of plays are being produced by women. "What's the percentage of black women being produced? We don't know. No one's done that study."

But for Hall, the sky is the limit, starting with her Broadway debut. "I'm excited for my career in general, not just about this one thing. There's so much happening right now to me as a writer — that's what I'm most exited for."






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