Katori Hall, photographed at the National Civil Rights Museum in 2010, opened 'The Mountaintop' in England because the British 'are used to cracking open the masks of their kings.'

Katori Hall, photographed at the National Civil Rights Museum in 2010, opened “The Mountaintop” in England because the British “are used to cracking open the masks of their kings.”

Katori Hall is the renowned Memphis playwright you’ve probably never heard of … unless you’re British.

In March, she won the coveted Laurence Olivier Award for her fictional play, “The Mountaintop” — about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — which made its debut in London.

Katori Hall, photographed at the National Civil Rights Museum in 2010, opened “The Mountaintop” in England because the British “are used to cracking open the masks of their kings.”

Hall, who just turned 29, is the first black woman to accept the award, the equivalent of winning a Tony on Broadway, and only the fourth female recipient since the awards began in 1976.

According to the British press, two other plays were favored to win.

The now-New Yorker has one more mountaintop to climb: Broadway, where the play is expected to arrive this fall.

On a recent trip home to Memphis, she spied a “For Rent” sign in the window over one of South Main Street’s vintage storefronts and wondered if she someday might get a “writer’s room” in the city.

Memphis, she says, is the wellspring of her best ideas. There’s something about the landscape that can be endlessly deconstructed for dramatic potential.

She found it shockingly appropriate, for example, that at one time, a housing project called Hurt Village was on Auction Street, which led down to the river where slaves were long ago unloaded from steamboats.

“I saw this housing project as a run-aground slave ship,” she said recently while sipping a cappuccino as a Downtown trolley roared past. “I saw the descent into an American nightmare.”

The play that came from it, “Hurt Village,” hasn’t been staged yet. She considers the subject matter “pretty heavy.”

Even heavier, perhaps, is “The Mountaintop,” which brought a slice of life from Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel to the British stage.

In Memphis, the name Katori Hall might be more familiar to her classmates at Craigmont High School or to her neighbors in Raleigh where she grew up.

Before she went off to Columbia University, Harvard drama school and the Juilliard playwriting program, her first published writings appeared in this newspaper when she was a neighborhood reporting intern.

“My time working as a reporter helped me figure out what stories I wanted to tell,” she said.

In “The Mountaintop,” Hall steps into the shoes of one of the word’s most famous and beloved civil rights figures. That’s one of the reasons the premiere production of the play went up in England, in a small theater over a bar.

“I felt like (the British) wouldn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to it, because they’re used to taking their heroes off of pedestals,” she said. “They are used to cracking open the masks of their kings.”

The play opens with a weary King alone in his hotel room shortly after his famous “Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple. In Memphis to speak on behalf of the sanitation workers, King is preparing his next incendiary speech, “Why America is Going to Hell.”

When the motel’s beautiful new maid, Camae, arrives, King drops his guard and becomes, at least for Hall, a more complex and human figure.

As theater critic Nicola Christie of The Independent in London wrote, “One minute the pastor and his new friend are beating each other up with rounds of oratory; the next, they’re trying out how to look sexy while smoking. We discover, too, that King has stinky feet, wonders whether his moustache looks good on him or not and has an eye for the ladies. We also learn that he is terrified. Terrified that he is about to die, that the attempts on his life will finally get him. Terrified that he hasn’t had the chance to fix the world and that he hasn’t said goodbye to his wife and children.”

Writing the play, Hall says she felt like a vessel. Her fingers flew across the keyboard. She didn’t sandpaper the rough edges. She didn’t want her King to be “a toothless tiger.”

Perhaps because the play hasn’t been seen outside London, she hasn’t heard from people who knew King personally.

“People have reacted differently based on their knowledge of history,” she says. “I must say, I got the oddest reactions from older black men. I got an e-mail: ‘How dare you do this! You’re getting it wrong.’ And I respond I’m not some dumb chick making this up. I’m incredibly connected to history and heritage.

“For me, King has always been a ghost, haunting my life in the best way. The play is my attempt to make his legacy complete for me.”

 

 

Written on June 10th, 2011 , Media
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