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.