Katori Hall, whose two hander, The Mountaintop, opened October the 13th at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, has had an amazing and serendipitous ride to Broadway.
The thirty year old playwright, who has also acted and worked as a journalist, has a resume filled with accomplishments and awards. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, she did her undergraduate work at Columbia University, received a M.F.A. in Acting from Harvard University and studied with Christopher Durang at Julliard. She won the Fellowship of Southern Writers Bryan Family Award in Drama, the New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Playwrighting and Screenwriting, a Royal Court Theatre Residency, and the Lorraine Hansberry Playwrighting Award. She was also a part of the Cherry Lane’s mentor program where she was mentored by Lynn Nottage.
However, when she finished The Mountaintop in 2007, she couldn’t get it produced. The play takes place on April 3, 1968 in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, just after Dr. King’s has delivered his famous “mountaintop” speech, and the night before he was shot dead on the balcony of that room. It portrays Dr. King as a man with flaws and doubts, who sniffs his socks and is dying for a Pall Mall. The maid, who is not who she seems, becomes his confidante. In an interview with Patrick Pacheco in the L.A. Times, Hall said, “I wanted to present a man who achieved greatness but who was really quite ordinary because when a person is presented with that, then it means that you, as an ordinary person, can achieve greatness too.”
American producers didn’t want to take a chance on a play that presented Dr. King as a person, rather than as an icon.
Then, Hall got a little help from a friend. She had acted in a play by British director James Dacre and emailed him the play. He convinced his theater to do it and the play opened in 2009. in Theatre 503, above a pub in London.
The London Paper said, “Director James Dacre’s production is nothing short of magnificent. I won’t reveal the twist, suffice to say you will laugh, cry and possibly leave the theatre a better person.
It then transferred to the West End and was the surprise winner of the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play.
Here comes the truly serendipitous moment. A Canadian independent producer, Marla Rubin, saw the opening night performance of the play at Theatre 503 and thought it was amazing. She brought in an American producer, Jean Doumanian, and they began to put it together for Broadway, which demands stars. They cast Samuel L. Jackson, who had been an usher at Dr. King’s funeral, and who had always wanted to play him. Halle Berry was first cast as Camae, but had to drop out and Angela Bassett took over. Branford Marsalis wrote incidental music for the production.
Two and a half years later, The Mountaintop opened on Broadway and is still playing to capacity houses. “It been quite a journey,” says Rubin.
The play closes on January the 22nd but Katori Hall has moved on to her next production. The Signature Theater Company selected her to be part of their first so-called “Residency Five,” which guarantees at least three full productions over the next five years, and her new play, Hurt Village, will run at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre Company, from February 7 through March 18, 2012, with an official February 27 opening.