TO the casual theater observer, and sometimes even to the obsessed aficionado, one Broadway season can look very much like the next. Names of stars more familiarly splashed on movie trailers are glowing from marquees around the district. The London-to-Broadway express delivers its usual cargo of prestige attractions. New musicals based on popular movies cause devotees to lament the days when Broadway was not a recycling plant but a hotbed of cultural creativity.

This season is in most ways no exception, but in at least one sense it is distinctly anomalous. This fall will bring to Broadway two new plays by African-American women: “The Mountaintop” by Katori Hall, opening Oct. 13 at the Bernard Jacobs Theater, and “Stick Fly” by Lydia R. Diamond, opening Dec. 8 at the Cort Theater.Suzan-Lori Parks’s contributions to the revised version of“The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which is scheduled to arrive on Broadway this winter, brings to three the number of black women whose work will be seen in the country’s premier theatrical marketplace this season.

In an ideal world this confluence would be incidental. Playwrights rightly bristle at being sorted into categories and resist having their works considered from the perspective of the author’s racial or ethnic background. Good work should speak for itself, and ideally to audiences of all kinds. But the fact is Broadway remains to a dispiriting degree hidebound in terms of the kind of work being presented and the audience being served.

Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” — the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, in 1959 — was a landmark but hardly a breakthrough. And the 20 years and more of August Wilson’s works being acclaimed (if rarely profitable) on Broadway did not result in a new wave of black playwrights being presented on New York’s most prestigious stages. New plays by women — of any color — remain by far the exception to the rule on Broadway.

Kenny Leon, the director of the recent smash revival of “Fences,” is directing both “The Mountaintop” and “Stick Fly.” He notes, “I can’t remember the last time there were three women playwrights on Broadway during the same season, let alone three African-American women.”

Although the backgrounds of their authors makes them notable, “The Mountaintop” and “Stick Fly” come to Broadway via the traditional routes and with some of the familiar assets required to brave the increasingly star-centric Broadway economy. Ms. Hall’s play, which depicts a fictionalized version of the last night in the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., received critical acclaim and the prestigious Olivier Award for best play when it was produced in the West End in London, after moving from a smaller theater. This production has new stars, the powerhouse team of Samuel L. Jackson as Dr. King and Angela Bassett as a maid at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King spent the night before his assassination.

Ms. Hall, 29, is amused at suggestions she’s heard that having her play produced in London was a savvy strategic move.

“Everyone thinks I was a sneaky girl who had this play produced over there because it was controversial,” she said in an interview. “The fact was, the opportunity arose. I had acted in the director James Dacre’s play three years before. I e-mailed him the play, and a couple of weeks later he e-mailed me and said he’d convinced his theater to do it. At the time I was working on a bare-bones workshop production here. After the workshop I flew to London and two days later was working on a full production — in a theater over a pub.”

Ms. Hall’s desire to write grew out of her frustrations as an actress.

“At Columbia I took an acting course, and my acting partner and I were assigned to do a scene from a play with two young black women,” she recalled. “We go to the library and start pulling down plays, and eventually gave up. ‘Maybe we can share the role of Tituba in ‘The Crucible’?” she remembered saying. “In that moment I thought, I have to write.”

Her ebullience over reaching Broadway is tempered by an awareness that this season is hardly a usual one. “I’m used to the Great White Way being the Great White Way,” she said, “so yes it feels really good. But I’m hesitant to celebrate because next season we may be back to white male writers only. Let’s be cautious.”

 

Written on September 19th, 2011 , Media

NEW YORK – In one of this fall’s most anticipated new Broadway productions, The MountaintopSamuel L. Jackson will play a weary traveler who strikes up a conversation with a hotel maid.

“He’s a man with a family, winding down from a tough day,” Jackson says. “He finds he can talk to her about the pressures in his life. He lets his guard down a bit. He’s a little flirtatious — you know, he’s just a guy.”

Except that Jackson’s character isn’t “just a guy.” At least, that’s not how most recall the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Mountaintop, due to begin performances Sept. 22 and open Oct. 13, re-imagines the night before King’s assassination in 1968. Set in Memphis’ Lorraine Hotel, the play includes just one other role, that of Camae, a mysterious woman who delivers room service, played byAngela Bassett.

Stage veterans Jackson and Bassett are confident that the play, which earned 30-year-old author Katori Hall an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony), will deliver something much more: a deeply human portrait of an icon.

“I want people to be surprised by what they discover about Dr. King,” says Jackson, speaking with Bassett during a rehearsal break. “Katori wrote a story about a man who knows that people want to kill him, and he’s not comfortable with that. Fear is his constant companion.”

But Hall’s King opens up to Camae, “a working-class, salt-of-the-earth woman,” Bassett says. “They’re two strangers who meet and connect for this moment.”

Mountaintop is one of several imminent Broadway productions showcasing African-American playwrights and stories. Its director, Kenny Leon, who guided Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to Tonys in 2010′s revival of Fences, also will helm Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, set to open Dec. 8. Later that month, previews begin for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, a new musical-theater version of the classic folk opera.

“Race was the big issue at the time,” Jackson says of the period documented inMountaintop. But the subject of a black leader’s struggle, he adds, is extremely topical.

“Dr. King was trying to deal with inequality, with the war in Vietnam, with poverty,” Jackson notes. “Everybody was saying he took on too much. Now our president’s got the same deal — so many issues. And race still plays a part in everything that happens.”

 

Written on September 15th, 2011 , Media

THE MOUNTAINTOP

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TAKING PLACE ON APRIL 3, 1968, THE MOUNTAINTOP IS A GRIPPING REIMAGINING OF EVENTS THE NIGHT BEFORE THE ASSASSINATION OF CIVIL RIGHTS LEADER DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AFTER DELIVERING HIS LEGENDARY ‘I’VE BEEN TO THE MOUNTAINTOP’ SPEECH, AN EXHAUSTED DR. KING RETIRES TO HIS ROOM AT THE LORRAINE MOTEL IN MEMPHIS WHILE A STORM RAGES OUTSIDE. WHEN A MYSTERIOUS YOUNG WOMAN DELIVERS ROOM SERVICE, KING IS FORCED TO CONFRONT HIS PAST, AS WELL AS HIS LEGACY TO HIS PEOPLE.

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Written on September 15th, 2011 , Events

ABSTRACT: LIFE AND LETTERS about the playwright Katori Hall. On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered what became one of his most famous speeches, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at the Mason Temple, in Memphis, Tennessee. Carrie Mae Golden, an African-American teen-ager, lived on Allen Street with nine siblings and two small children of her own. She wanted desperately to see King deliver his speech, but her mother refused to let her go. The next day, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel. Carrie Mae Golden had missed not only one of his finest speeches but his last. “There are certain things that you regret until the day you die,” she said forty-three years later, “and that’s one of them.” The playwright Katori Hall, who turned thirty in May, doesn’t remember when she first heard her mother tell this story of missing Martin Luther King. As a girl in Memphis, Hall grew up in the shadow of King and of his fateful end there. Years later, as she was inching away from an acting career to concentrate on playwriting, she remembered her mother’s tale.

In 2007, she wrote a play called “The Mountaintop,” set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel on the last night of King’s life. There are two characters; King and a chambermaid named Camae, short for Carrie Mae. Camae challenges King, goading him to confront his fears of futility and of death. In 2009, the director James Dacre staged the play in a theatre above a pub in London. After an acclaimed monthlong run, it reopened in the West End. It was named Best New Play at the 2010 Olivier Awards, making Hall the first black woman to win in the category. Next week, it begins performances on Broadway, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Hall says that she wrote the play out of a desire to give her mother a retroactive audience with King. Additionally, Hall’s intention was to “humanize” King, an objective that has earned her detractors. Mentions Hall’s first play, “Hoodoo Love.” Hall attended Columbia University on a full scholarship, and, after graduating, she enrolled in the acting program at the American Repertory Theatre, in Cambridge. In 2005, she moved back to New York. “Hoodoo Love” won the 2005 Kennedy Center’s Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award. Soon after, she was accepted into the Cherry Lane’s mentor program. Memphis, like August Wilson’s Pittsburgh, is inseparable from Hall’s dramatic imagination. Her characters, all black, are troubled strivers who wind up brutalizing themselves and others. The Halls moved to Southaven, Mississippi, five years ago, after living for two decades in Raleigh, a middle-class Memphis suburb. Hall has traced her ancestry to Matilda Jernigan, a slave born in South Carolina in 1845. Mentions Allen Street. Describes a visit to the Lorraine Motel, which is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

 

Written on September 14th, 2011 , Media

As an acting student at Columbia, Katori Hall felt that there weren’t enough roles being written for African-American women between 18 and 25. “But instead of complaining about not fitting into other playwrights’ worlds, I decided to do something about it,” the 2009 graduate of the Playwrights program said. One of the pieces she brought with her to Juilliard was the beginnings of a play about the last night of Martin Luther King’s life. It was inspired by Hall’s mother’s stories about how her own mother, worried about violence, cautioned her not to attend what would be King’s last speech, on April 3, 1968. In the play, called The Mountaintop, the exhausted activist is visited in his hotel room by a hotel maid with a mysterious secret, and they spend the evening conversing. In a star-studded trajectory, The Mountaintop was awarded London’s prestigious best new play Olivier in March 2010. The Mountaintop opens in previews at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater on Broadway on September 22, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Hall recently took time from the whirlwind of preparations to talk to Journal editor Susan Jackson.

When did you start writing The Mountaintop?

Because the story was told to me so many times in my life, in a weird way, I’ve been writing it my whole life. I’m a story collector: I hear a story, and I keep it in my arsenal. It will work on itself in me until it needs to leap out onto the page. Early 2007 was when I decided that I was going to put this story to paper. I wrote the first eight pages then and didn’t touch it ’til fall.

What triggered your writing of it?

It was partly that the 40-year marker of Dr. King’s assassination was coming up. And also that this man Obama was interested in becoming president. At that moment in my life and America’s history, I was putting a lot of things together and questioning how far we had come as a nation since King’s death—and how much we still needed to do. The moment [of the anniversary] prompted me to finally sit down at the computer and really write that story.

How was The Mountaintop’s development connected with Juilliard?

[Playwright program directors Marsha Norman and Christopher Durang] were so supportive, and my classmates’ feedback was really important to how I approached the rewrites. From Juilliard I got a more academic perspective, and Lark Play Development Center, where I was in a playwrights workshop at the same time, gave me a more audience-based perspective. Those two different processes going on at the same time make the play what it is today.

Did anything surprise you about your Juilliard experience?

What I loved the most was having the opportunity to work with amazing young, vibrant, hungry actors. It’s very rare that a playwright has the opportunity to see their work instantly coming out of an actor’s mouth. I was also pleasantly surprised by the fact that there were a lot of African-American actors, which is an amazing sign of progress, a sign that there are many African-American actors deserving of complex and interesting roles.

The current Playwrights Festival at Juilliard takes place September 8-11; tell us about your experience with it.

It’s such a wonderful process. You get to pick the director, work with really talented actors, be at all the rehearsals, and generally help bring your play to fruition. It really preps you for life outside school. It also helps you learn how to let go, which you have to do as a playwright: you have to learn to walk out of the rehearsal room and know that it will be O.K.—and that gives the actors a sense of confidence.

You’ve been very involved in the pre-production of the Broadway Mountaintop; how do you shift gears from the solitary writer’s life to the crazy theater life?

Even while I’m writing, I’m always in the midst of it. I always have people around, and I’m doing readings and meeting with creative advisors. But yeah, you toil at your computer/writing desk, and all of a sudden, it’s in front of a breathing audience and they’re laughing or crying. That’s a bigger version of letting go, and eventually you have to deal with it. And part of that is seeing the audience relate to the story and hoping that they’re being changed by it.

How do you hope they will be changed by it?

I wanted to depict not only Dr. King’s triumphs but also his struggles. He achieves such great things, but he is grounded in a very human existence. My hope is the audience will be inspired by his greatness, but that they’ll also realize that he is for regular people. I want the audience to come out saying, “I can be a King, too. We all can be Kings.”

How have you been changed by it?

I’ve learned so much more about Dr. King and the history of civil rights and came out so inspired. I didn’t know he spoke out against Vietnam. I didn’t know he was speaking out about poor people and militarism and foreign policy. It was way more complicated than just the “I Have a Dream” King in our textbooks.

How has this experience changed your playwriting?

I’ve gotten more fearless in terms of how I write and what I write about. To many people, [The Mountaintop] is almost blasphemous: How dare you take King off a pedestal? I say, How dare I not? I’m a dramatist. I’m supposed to put human beings on stage. People are people. People bleed. People die. People are afraid. My purpose is to tell stories that wouldn’t necessarily be told.

—Interview conducted by Susan Jackson

 

Written on September 12th, 2011 , Media
Katori Hall on Twitter