A Playwright's Vision of MLK's Last Day
Katori Hall explains how she reimagines history in her new Broadway play, The Mountaintop.
KH: A lot. The play's director, Kenny Leon, created a family, and it was a life-changing experience for me. I was at almost every rehearsal, and during this time, they would ask me questions, we would talk and hang out. It's funny because you grow up seeing these people on the silver screen, and you never think that you are going to meet them, let alone work with them on something. I learned that they are real people, too, and it changes your perception, which is what this whole play is about. King was an icon and he was just like us.
TR: What more would you have said to King on his last night alive, especially in terms of how his baton would have been passed on?
KH: Camae is an extension of my mother, but my alter ego as well. So there's not much more I would have said. But I would have talked to King about the pros and cons of integration, and I would have warned him that what his dream was hasn't yet been achieved when you really look at how fragmented the black community still is. I would have told him that social integration hasn't panned out the way he would have wanted it to. I also would have told him about Troy Davis and our justice system -- or injustice system.
TR: Have any civil rights leaders or King family members reached out to you to express their thoughts about your portrayal of King?
KH: We reached out to the King family, but it was the same time the memorial [in Washington, D.C.] was being held, so they couldn't come. On opening night of the play on Oct. 13, Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, Cory Booker and other leaders were in attendance, but because I was working and being interviewed, I didn't get a chance to speak to them. But my goal is to track them down and have face-to-face time to find out what they think.
However, Andrew Young [former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference] read the play, and at the end of it he said he was weeping.
TR: How has the response differed in London and in the U.S.?
KH: In terms of critical response, in London The Mountaintop had instant universal acclaim, and King's humanization was accepted and even called "magical." But here in the U.S., there are some critics who have had problems with the play, calling it "flawed," and have been dismissive, as opposed to embracing that my play incorporates magic. And it's unfortunate, because there is more than one way of telling a story.
In terms of audience response, it's been pretty much the same. People laugh and cry at the same moments, and they have immediate standing ovations at the end. I will say that London audiences were more reserved. But overall, they have been the same. And it's great to see just how extremely diverse the audiences are, which was Dr. King's dream, to see all these different people side by side, being moved by this story.
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Terrell is also the news editor for thebody.com, a website about HIV/AIDS. She blogs about health for BET.com. Follow her on Twitter.