It was a stormy night in Memphis, Tenn., at the Lorraine Hotel on April 3, 1968, when civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was gearing up for what would be his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” All of a sudden a mysterious hotel maid named Camae, who seems harmless, delivers King a pot of coffee. We quickly find out that she is not what she seems. The interaction and tension between these polar opposites would make MLK’s last night on Earth before being assassinated exhilarating yet utterly devastating.
This is the fictional premise behind the eye-opening and much hyped play The Mountaintop, which debuted in London’s West End last year and debuted on Broadway last month. Written by 30-year-old playwright Katori Hall, The Mountaintop won the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for best new play last September, a first for any black female playwright.
The Root sat down with Hall to talk about what inspired this work, what she would have said to King on his last night and how magic and the supernatural can be used to tell a story on Broadway.
The Root: Why did you want to write about MLK’s last days, and why add a fictional maid?
Katori Hall: When my mother was 15 years old, Dr. King came to speak at Mason Temple in Memphis, and she wanted to go and see him. She lived around the corner of the Lorraine Hotel and had seen King speak before. But this time, Big Momma told her no because she had heard through the grapevine that someone was going to bomb the church.
Even a friend of hers had overheard the mayor say that if Dr. King came back to town, he wasn’t going to leave alive. And so this play comes out of my mother’s missed opportunity, and Camae is partially based on my mother as well.
Having the character of Camae, the maid, also gave me an opportunity to show the clash of great opposites. Camae is just the antithesis of King: working-class, mouthy woman; honorary Black Panther Party angel who doesn’t always believe that nonviolence is the answer.
But it was also really important for me to show the human side of King and articulate the tone of his life, especially toward the end of his life. During this time, he was dealing with the heightened threat of violence, he was tackling issues beyond civil rights — economic issues — and was denouncing the Vietnam War. So I wanted to explore the emotional toll and the stress of that.
King changed the world, but he was not a deity. He was a man, a human being like me and you. So it was important to show him as such: vulnerable.
TR: How much interaction did you have with Samuel L. Jackson (King) and Angela Bassett (Camae)?