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Martin Luther King Inspires Award-Winning Playwright

By:  Bethanne Patrick Oct 26, 2012
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Katori Hall
Photos by Xanthe Elbrick

Renowned playwright Katori Hall.

Katori Hall, a 1999 Coca-Cola Scholar, is a renowned playwright — yet she’s just 31 years old.

How does she account for her success? Through a combination of personal passion and deep-rooted support.

As Hall notes, the support that was provided by Coke's scholarship program goes “way beyond” the financial. “When my play was on Broadway, my Coca-Cola family came to New York and did a dinner around it. I felt as if I had a wall of hands lifting me up! It’s like, ‘Yes, Katori, you can do it.’ And because I had that wall of hands behind me, I felt more confident about my intention as an artist, that I was doing the right thing.”

The personal passion aspect shows up in an anecdote that Hall often shares: As a Columbia University undergraduate, she and a classmate were tasked with finding a play that featured two women of color — but they couldn’t. “I decided something was missing in American theater,” Hall has said. “But instead of complaining . . . I decided to do something about it.”

The Making of a Playwright

Once Hall had earned her MFA in acting from Harvard University and completed the Lila Acheson Wallace playwriting program at The Juilliard School, she did “do something about it” — Hall began work on The Mountaintop, a play that imagines a conversation between Martin Luther King Jr. and a hotel maid the night before his assassination.

Following its London premiere, Hall became the first African American woman to win the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. The production then ran on Broadway for 17 weeks, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, under the direction of Kenny Leon.

The play consists of an invented encounter between one fictional character — hotel maid Camae, whose name is a tribute to Hall’s mother, Carrie Mae — and a partially imagined Dr. King.

“We will never know who Dr. King was in private. For me, it was important to use my imagination because that’s what I’m being paid for, and imagination can lead you to emotional truth — that’s where it all starts,” says Hall.

Hall also points out that she’s “a playwright, not a historian, not a politician, not a journalist, so I felt very comfortable playing with history because history does change as we gather information, as we look at it through a different lens. History is a very malleable thing.”

Inspiration and Expression: A Recipe for Success

When it comes to what inspires her, Hall says that she always starts with “a feeling, a deep visceral reaction to a character, a time period or an event. I feel that for us, as human beings, our histories are written by our emotions. Because I am in the business of putting human beings on the stage, and not ideas, I work through emotions.”

For The Mountaintop, the emotion that started it all for Hall was her mother’s lifelong regret at not hearing Dr. King give his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968 — a speech that would be his last. Hall’s grandmother was worried about rumors of violence, so she convinced her daughter not to attend.

Hall’s play takes place in the Lorraine Motel as a weary Dr. King calls for Camae to bring him coffee, and winds up bumming a cigarette from her. Camae is a young, attractive revolutionary whose Black Panther philosophy and salty language are matched by Dr. King’s doctrine of nonviolence — and stinky feet.

The dramatist wanted to humanize Dr. King, as opposed to simply bring an icon of the civil-rights movement down to the level of a service worker. Hall also wanted to work toward her goal of shaking up the conversation: “I am writing from the margins, so I have to keep asking about how to change the mirror. How do I make the mirror fairer? How do I stop feeling invisible in my art form?”

And while Hall believes that her race — and Dr. King’s — forms part of the answer to those questions, it’s not the only answer. “I just feel that because I am in the profession of expression, I have to be true to myself, to be the best I can be,” says Hall. “So as I grew up and learned to become more comfortable with myself as a young black woman from the South, my work got better. It was my race and my region and my gender, not just one of those.”

A Playwright’s Expanding Portfolio

 

Since her acclaim for The Mountaintop, Hall has had more success, including a residency at the Signature Theater in New York through its Residency Five program, which commits to a world premiere of three plays over five years by a single playwright. The play that Hall premiered at the theater, Hurt Village, is a powerful, multivoiced story about a tenement high-rise that’s about to be shut down, and the Iraq War veteran who returns home just as the news has wreaked havoc on the family members who reside there.

But it is Hall’s most recently produced play that perhaps best explores her fundamental questions about identity. In August 2012, Whaddabloodclot! premiered at the Williamstown Theater in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It follows the tale of a very proper matron whose ischemic stroke leaves her with the accent of a Jamaican Rastafarian.

“It’s funny and it’s hilarious in tone, but I think everyone can relate to having a performance of identity imposed on them,” says Hall. “We’re all kind of performing, really, but we are all also still our authentic and individual selves.”

One of the things that allows Hall herself to remain authentic and individual is the “wall of hands” behind her — but she also never forgets the practical side of things: “When you have a grant, you get to be free from everyday worries, like making money, putting food on the table, and ‘I have to go to the doctor!’ I just feel really, really lucky that I’ve had support.”