A reimagining of the final hours in the life of the civil rights leader, The Mountaintop is set on 3 April 1968, the night before his assassination, in room 306 of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel to which Martin Luther King has retired after giving his famous “I have been to the mountaintop” speech to a massive church congregation. When room service is delivered by a mysterious young maid Camae (Burroughs), King is forced to confront his past, as well as his legacy to his people.
Katori Hall, an African-American, is a child of the post-civil rights era, who grew up in Memphis and whose mother was due to attend King’s rally that night. At the Q&A, she share her deeply personal collection to the subject matter, while Britons Harewood and Burroughs discuss, amongst other things, how they captured King’s distinctive vocal qualities.
The Mountaintop had its world premiere, directed by James Dacre, at the fringe new writing venue, Theatre503 in Battersea, south London in June before transferring to Trafalgar Studios, where it opened on 20 July and continues its limited seven-week season until 5 September 2009.
Last night’s Q&A took place in the theatre immediately after the sell-out performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. Click on the 'play' button above to listen to it in full. Edited transcript highlights follow …
On where the story comes from
Katori Hall: The story comes from a deeply personal place. My mother actually grew up around the corner from the Lorraine Hotel. On April 3rd 1968 Martin Luther King Jr was scheduled to do a big speech at Mason Temple which was also around the corner from my mother. And my mother, enthralled with the movement, really wanted to be part of his vision and really wanted to hear him speak. But there was a rumour going around the neighbourhood of a bomb threat, and a lot of people were really afraid to go and see him speak. And my grandmother, Big Mamma, said “you know they’re going to bomb that church so you better stay at home”, so my mother didn’t go. The next day he was assassinated, and it was the greatest regret of her life that she didn’t take that opportunity to hear him speak because she and most of the neighbourhood were too scared.
On the world premiere being in London
Katori Hall: The play can be controversial. Theatre503 is a wonderful theatre that doesn’t mind doing theatre that is evocative and pushes people’s buttons. I was a little concerned because it is an American play, I’m an American writer, and it’s about Martin Luther King. But what I’ve learned through this whole process is that King is not just ours, he’s not just mine, he’s the world’s. For me it makes perfect sense to premiere it in London, because I feel as though the audience have cultural distance and they don’t have an immediate knee jerk reaction when they see a more human King instead of the icon that is King.
On why the actors wanted to be in the production
David Harewood: It’s an extraordinary play. For an actor it’s a great joy to get a big role that allows you to go through a kaleidoscope of emotions: do a bit of comedy, a bit of pathos, a bit of drama, just about everything. It’s like an acting exercise. It’s really a pleasure to do it. As far as King goes, most people have grown up with the words of Martin Luther King. Every time I hear the “I Have a Dream” speech, there are tingles up my spine. The opportunity to play him was too good to walk away from. We did it in Battersea above a pub, but I would have done it at a bus stop.
Lorraine Burroughs: The part. I love her (Camae), she’s great. I picked up the piece and read it, and the fact that it was about Martin Luther King was amazing, but it was just the play in itself. It’s so human and it does make you love him more. I didn’t know the ins and outs of Martin Luther King. I’ve grown up with the “I Have a Dream” speech, but we weren’t taught a lot about him at school. It’s given me the opportunity to find out a lot more. But because of the way the play is written, the fact that you go on a crazy journey, that’s why I wanted to do it. You don’t get parts like that often.
On portraying Martin Luther King
David Harewood: We only had three weeks to rehearse this play so we had to make quick decisions and learn the lines extremely quickly. Once I had all the movement done and I knew what I was emotionally doing and physically in the play and was confident with that, then I just sat down one night, got rather drunk and put on some head phones and listened to four hours of Martin Luther King’s sermons. I just listened to his voice and the next day in rehearsal I was talking like him. Sometimes I exaggerate because it’s fun and I’m trying to give a shout out to his style.
David Harewood: When they performed the autopsy on Martin Luther King, they said that he had the heart of a 60-year-old man and he was 39 years old. That gives you some idea of how much stress, and how much pain and pressure he was under. And not only that, when he was shot, he was smoking, and Ralph took the cigarette out of his hand. They didn’t want the public to know that he smoked.
On preparing for Camae’s King speech in the play
Lorraine Burroughs: That was the hardest thing for me during rehearsals. When I read it, I was like “oh yes I can do that, I can enjoy doing that”. But then it was making it work technically and being able to get the points across rather than just messing about and having fun yourself. Getting across what she is actually trying to do and then she gets lost within it and it becomes very personal to her. In the end it was a mixture of watching YouTube stuff and me being on my own and breaking it down and taking it seriously rather than having fun.
On the diversity of the audience
David Harewood: It’s actually been really diverse especially for the West End. It’s lovely when everyone comes together and takes what they want from the piece.
Katori Hall: And age-wise, the first night we did it in Battersea there was a little eight-year-old boy there. It’s been a whole cross-section of society that has been to see the play.
On the supernatural element of the story
Katori Hall: I always knew that she (Camae) was an angel from the beginning. I guess a lot of people assume (at the beginning) that it will be a naturalistic play, but I always knew that this was going to be his wrestling with his angel. There is always a little magic in everything I write. It may have to do with my Southern upbringing. I wasn’t raised to be religious, but I was raised to be spiritual and to believe in magic and spirits and angels.
On whether we’ve made it to King’s “mountaintop”
Katori Hall: We’ve got a long way to go. Dr King once said “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (Harewood repeats). I believe we are living in an incredible time where people are invigorated and people are looking deep within themselves and questioning the past so we can all have brighter futures. I feel as if we are on the precipice of change. But we have so much work to do as nations, as individuals, as human beings living on this planet. We all have work to do, no matter where we are. But I am an optimist and I do believe that the “promised land” is possible.