Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Descending the Mountaintop

Katori Hall’s play, staged this season in theaters across the country, offers a surprising perspective on Martin Luther King Jr.

April 12, 2013 Memphis native and playwright Katori Hall is causing an international stir with her play, The Mountaintop, which chronicles the last night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and the events that took place in his hotel room after his famous “Mountaintop” speech. The original production premiered in 2010 in London, where Hall earned the coveted Olivier Award before returning home to open the play on Broadway in 2011. Only a year after its close on Broadway, The Mountaintop has become one of the most widely produced plays in the nation. In an interview, NPR’s Michel Martin asked Hall why the play has “this kind of appeal,” and Hall cited a continued “fascination with King” that has spanned decades.

Nevertheless, the play has seemed unusual, and even blasphemous, to some critics, who fault her for “taking liberties with the dialogue, which is not drawn from King’s speeches or writings,” according to NPR. In The Mountaintop she strips away the legendary civil-rights leader’s heroism and portrays him as an average middle-aged man passing time in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. In a telephone interview with The Washington Post’s DeNeen Brown, Hall noted that King himself was beset by “vulnerabilities and fears.” She wanted, she said, to present “the humanity in this hero so we can see the hero in ourselves.”

The Mountaintop begins with King relieving himself and then waiting for his friend to deliver a pack of cigarettes. The Post described this sequence as “nothing more than ordinary,” where King is “a man who smokes, likes a little whiskey in his coffee.” He flirts harmlessly with the hotel maid. He calls his wife on the phone. Through these actions, Hall provides a rare glimpse of the beloved preacher behind the scenes, taking a break from fervor and “soaring rhetoric.”

Hall, thirty-one, comes across as a confident writer who isn’t afraid to point the spotlight on her characters’ complexities: she told the Post that she “was not worried in the least about what people might say” about this representation of King– or about her: “I can be aggressive with a Southern twang,” she said. The play’s acclaim and commentary has served to highlight the extensive and impressive work Hall has already produced over the years. During a graduate-school stint at Julliard, she conceived of The Mountaintop and another play called Hoodoo Love–the only show fully produced during her time there– as well as Children of Killers, Hurt Village, and WHADDABLOODCLOT!!!, all premiering in 2012.

On April 19, Katori Hall will speak in Chattanooga at the Festival of Southern Literature; for more information, click here. To read more from Chapter 16 about Katori Hall and The Mountaintop, click here.