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Brief Encounter With ... Katori Hall

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Katori Hall is a 28-year-old American dramatist whose play The Mountaintop, about the final hours of Martin Luther King, is currently enjoying its West End premiere at Trafalgar Studios following a sell-out run at Battersea's Theatre503 in June.

Hall is currently the playwright-in-residence at the Women's Project and is part of the Old Vic New Voices scheme (she has also previously enjoyed a residency with the Royal Court). Her previous plays include Hoodoo Love, Remembrance, Hurt Village, Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, On the Chitlin' Circuit, Oreogirl and Freedom Train.

The Mountaintop is set on 3 April 1968, the night before Martin Luther King's assassination, in room 306 of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel to which the civil rights leader 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 woman, King is forced to confront his past, as well as his legacy to his people.

Directed by James Dacre and starring David Harewood and Lorraine Burroughs, it continues at Trafalgar Studios until 5 September.

How does it feel to see The Mountaintop in the West End?
It’s been amazing, and very surprising. I just thought that this play was going to appeal to an American audience because it’s about an American icon and it’s set in Memphis, Tennessee, which is where I’m from. Who in London is going to care about all that? But then I was proved wrong. I had to relearn that King is a universal hero, he’s not just our hero, he’s the world’s hero.

Has it changed much from the original Theatre503 production?
My fear was that it wasn’t going to be as intimate as the Theatre503 production because there you really felt that you were inside of the Lorraine Motel. James (Dacre, the director) created the set in such a way that King entered behind us and kind of locked us inside. We don’t necessarily have that configuration now but the intimacy of that space has not been lost. You gain an intimacy of a different kind because you have a larger audience. I think the experience is a little bit more palpable because you have a lot of different eyes on it. Everyone is still in the room, but there’s just more people in the room.

You mention in the programme notes that your mother grew up near where King was shot. Has this play been something you’ve always felt you had to write?
I would say that the story that my mom told me about her childhood – she wanted to hear him go speak that night but didn’t get a chance to because of the bomb threat – that stayed with me. It wasn’t until late 2007 where I decided to use that family history as the basis of a new play. So I started working, not knowing exactly how it was going to end, but I knew that I wanted to put my mother in the hotel room with King.

And you actually named Camae, the character in The Mountaintop after your mother; how did she feel about that when she found out you were planning to do it?
She didn’t know that I was going to use her name at all. There’s a part when he (King) looks on her chest and sees the name tag and it says Carrie-Mae and he says, "that’s not what you said earlier". When my mother heard that she freaked out. She was in fits. And the lady next to her was like, "what is going on with this woman?" But after that she was like, "I love it, I love it, I love it!". So she seems very proud of me and very happy and entertained. It was a very lovely moment because she’s the one who inspired me to write the story so it was really wonderful for her to see it come to fruition.

The portrait you paint of King in The Mountaintop may surprise many people who tend to think of him as an almost saintly figure; did you set out to burst the bubble around him?
I was very intent on creating a King that no one knew about, that no one could have ever imagined. The King I created was a little bit more human, he’s variegating shades of grey and not necessarily black and white. I think it’s really really interesting when you think about someone who has been put on a pedestal and this tremendous amount of pressure put on them. How would that pressure get to them? So I really just thought about the circumstances of that particular moment in time. How he would be thinking, what he would be like, in terms of his psychological state? I must say when I started out it wasn’t my intention to knock him off his pedestal. As a dramatist it is very important for me to see a person on stage and not a two-dimensional image. That was always my intent, to create a human being. And in doing that I guess I have pierced this saintly idea of him.

Judging from the reactions of audiences and critics it doesn’t look like any of the power of King’s message has been lost by humanising him
The truth is you don’t have to be perfect at all, you just have to have the desire and the determination to do it and in showing that I think it sends a message to people in the audience that being perfect is not the goal. Being perfectly determined is the true goal in terms of moving towards a better world.

So is that something you want audiences to take away from the play? The importance of moving towards a better world?
I hope so, I truly truly hope so. That’s why I wrote the play - for myself - to be inspired in some way. You know, to pick garbage up off the road, go to Rwanda to write a play about the genocide, to continuously do things that not only improve myself but improve the world. That’s why I write and I just hope that people in the theatre coming to see the play will be inspired to do whatever they feel they need to do to improve themselves and the world. I just truly hope it moves and challenges and inspires other people to do better.

When will London audiences get to see more of your work?
I have five plays that I need to get up on their feet. If it comes up I would love to work here again. The space for new writing is much much bigger here. New writing is much more respected. It seems like there’s a bigger space for it and I feel as though The Mountaintop has definitely introduced me to the London theatre establishment so I hope that people will want to read my other plays.

- Katori Hall was speaking to Jo Caird

The Mountaintop continues at Trafalgar Studios until 5 September. See also the recording and transcript of our Whatsonstage.com Q&A with the cast and Katori Hall at last week's WOS Outing (5 August 2009).

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