Perennially underrepresented, female playwrights of color are taking center stage this season. Among the most prominent is Katori Hall, whose The Mountaintop stars Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Bassett as a mysterious visitor to King’s Memphis hotel on the night before his assassination
We don’t get very many historical dramas these days, but it in the past few years, there have been at least three show about Dr. King: The Good Negro, The Conscientious Objector, The/King/Operetta. What draws playwrights to him?
As a historical figure, King has been shrouded in so much myth that it’s intriguing to try to make him flesh and blood. I can only speak for myself, but when I was growing up in Memphis—and having the Martin Luther King holiday and the moment of pause on April 4th—he was just a statue to me. I wanted to make him a little bit more real to me as a human being. So [in The Mountaintop] we see him afraid; we see him dealing with daily death threats and what that does to a person’s soul. We see him smoking because he’s so stressed out—and that’s a historical fact. There is a video in the National Civil Rights Museum where Rev. Billy Kyles talks about how Dr. King had a cigarette in his hand when he was shot, and that Kyles actually took the cigarette out of his hand because he didn’t want the kids to know that their father smoked.
So many statements that we associate with King or other public figures are from crafted speeches. So one challenge is, how do they sound when they’re not…?
…When they’re not performing, when they’re not a pastor? That’s something I struggle with, because I was adamant that I wasn’t going to use one lick of what he had said in his speeches: Behind the scenes, he had to talk in a totally different way. Because I know that I do. I pull the switch all the time. As a black woman who grows up in a predominantly white neighborhood, you learn how to perform a “good” version of yourself. And then when you’re with your homegirls, you’re saying all kinds of stuff that sounds all kinds of crazy, but you understand each other because you’re speaking the way that you’re comfortable with. Some people call it the “black vernacular”; I just call it talkin’. [Laughs] So I’m still struggling with how to present myself to the world. And I took all of that into consideration and applied it to what think that he, as a character in a play, might have been going through. Because obviously you’re inspired by the historical facts, but you have to take a leap and make it drama.
There’s nothing worse than those Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations plays.
Exactly! So, how did this person really talk? And wouldn’t it be cool if he just did not sound the way that you would expect? I think that’s another thing that’s upending about the play: that an actor like Samuel L. Jackson, who is known for things like Pulp Fiction and Snakes on a Plane, can come into this role and fully embody it. Because it’s not the “I have a dream” King. It’s a King that is radical. It’s a King that, when he’s frustrated, curses sometimes. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Or, I don’t think so. Other people may have a problem with it. [Laughs]
Do heroes need their myths?
We expect our leaders to be godlike. But I feel that when people try to sanctify leadership, it puts it out of the realm of regular people. And that’s where the greatest leaders come from—from the people. We’re all leaders; we all can be leaders. We all can be Kings.