Playwright Katori Hall was just 28 when her play The Mountaintop had its 2009 world premiere in London and instantly amped up her newly launched career.
She had already earned a degree in African-American studies and creative writing from Columbia University, a master’s in acting from American Repertory Theater’s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard, and was newly graduated from the Juilliard School’s play-writing program. But the British critical acclaim and the 2010 Olivier Award for best new play quickly got Hall, like Miami’s Tarell Alvin McCraney, attention on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Mountaintop, which will open at GableStage at 8 p.m. Saturday, imagines a fateful encounter between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a maid at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel on the night before King’s 1968 assassination. The great man, the “I have a dream” and “I’ve been to the mountaintop” orator, is present in the room. But Hall is more interested in focusing on King the man, a man with flaws, fears and a sense of humor.
“I feel we put Dr. King on a pedestal. By showing him as an ordinary person, we feel we can go out and do extraordinary things,” Hall says by phone from New York.
GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler is staging The Mountaintop, which has been among the most-produced plays in American regional theater for two seasons. The play appealed to him in part, he says, because he remembers vividly the night of April 4, 1968, when James Earl Ray shot King.
“You felt at that time that they were killing all of the good men. He intrigues me, and that moment does,” Adler says.
At the same time, he was fascinated by Hall’s down-to-earth portrayal of King.
“There’s this cult that springs up around great men, that wants to deny they could have feet of clay,” Adler says. “I find that absurd. If you want to emulate someone, they have to be human.”
C. Anthony Jackson, a former theater professor at the University of Michigan, is a Chicago-based actor who has performed solo shows and given speeches as King. He’ll play the civil rights leader opposite South Florida actor Karen Stephens, a double nominee for the 38th annual Carbonell Awards being presented at the end of the month. Both actors are relishing the challenge of doing a play that, for a time, maintains deliberate mysteries.
Initially, King seems to be a weary, worried man, a secret smoker who frets about listening devices, death threats and his legacy. The maid Camae (short for Carrie Mae) appears to be a friendly, down-to-earth woman with a gift for plain, insightful talk. But Hall layers in twists and surprises that send The Mountaintop soaring in a different direction.
Stephens, who is making her GableStage debut in The Mountaintop, calls the role of Camae “a goldmine for an actress. It’s challenging and rewarding to play this maid who spends part of the last night of Dr. King’s life with him.”
Jackson, who has spent so much time delivering King’s speeches verbatim, is happy to be exploring a different version of the minister.
“This doesn’t deal with a lot of narrative. It’s slice-of-life realism with a touch of magic and fantasy. The dialogue attracted me. He’s a real human being. He’s not invulnerable,” Jackson says.
Hall was inspired to write The Mountaintop by her mother Carrie Mae, who was a 15-year-old living just a few blocks from the Lorraine Motel when King was assassinated there. Her mother had wanted to go to King’s speech at the Mason Temple on April 3, but because it was storming, Hall’s grandmother said no. The next day King, who had come to Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike and speak about civil rights, was dead.
“Writing the play was a way to pay homage to my mom and put her in the room with him. I wanted someone he could do battle with, someone opposite in gender, class and political identification,” she says.
The 2011 Broadway version of The Mountaintop starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett had a limited three-month run and didn’t get the same sort of acclaim the play earned in London. Hall thinks that may be in part because critics expected to see the idealized version of King. But the playwright used her imagination and scholarship to craft a different character.
“They’d say Dr. King was waxing poetic all the time. I was like, ‘No.’ I didn’t want to use his speeches and have to get permission from the family. I pushed away his heightened, oratorical way of speaking,” she says. “In New York, people expected a play I didn’t write.… If anything veers into the world of spirituality, critics like to stamp it ‘sentimentality.’ People missed the boat of looking through that cultural lens. How can I not deal in spirit when I’m writing about a man who walked in spirit?”