Was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. An Ordinary Guy?

The Mountaintop is an award-winning play about the night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died. But some critics don't love playwright Katori Hall's portrayal of the civil rights icon as a regular guy. Hall tells host Michel Martin why she found it important to focus on the man, not the myth.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been talking about the politics of the moment and we only touched on this, but it's important to note how the politics of the moment are rooted in the past. This year, as you might know, marks the 50th anniversary of a number of milestones in civil rights history, including the march on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, but it was a speech he gave five years later in Tennessee, his last, that inspired our next guest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: I just want to do God's will, and he has allowed me to go up to the mountain and I've looked over and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.

MARTIN: Playwright Katori Hall imagines the rest of that night in King's life in "The Mountaintop." It's an award-winning play that was first performed in 2010. "The Mountaintop" is now being performed in many theatres across the country. It recently opened a five week run at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage, a theater that stands almost in the shadows of the King Memorial on the National Mall.

We caught up with playwright Katori Hall recently to tell us more about it, and let me just mention here that the conversation contains some earthy language that some might find objectionable. So with that being said, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations.

KATORI HALL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: "The Mountaintop" is reportedly one of the most produced plays nationwide this season, and I recognize that this is a little like asking a mom why other people find her kids cute, but I'm going to risk it anyway and ask: Why do you think it's had this kind of appeal?

HALL: There's several reasons. The major reason is the fact that it's about Dr. King and he is one of our national heroes. He changed our society, changed our universe. We, as brown and white and all colors and people - we can walk side-by-side and we don't think of each other as second class citizens any more. I feel as though he helped, you know, with many other people, usher in this new society where we're not exactly in a post-racial society, as some people like to say, but we are in a society moving towards more progress. It's in progress.

MARTIN: So you think it's a fascination with King?

HALL: I definitely think it's fascination with King and I'm very - but it's funny. I'm very happy that people aren't slating the play during Black History Month. Like people are doing it in December and they're doing it in April. Usually, you know, the black play is slotted for February and I - you know, I have to give a pat on the back to the artistic directors who are thinking outside the box in that regard.

MARTIN: You know, what's funny, though, is that initially - I've seen that you've talked about this in earlier interviews when the play first was getting a lot of attention - people had said, what do you think you're doing, that this is wrong...

HALL: Yeah. They were very hesitant.

MARTIN: ...this is - you know, and that some of the critics didn't love it at first, although audiences have embraced it on both sides of the Atlantic very quickly. Now, that's interesting to me. Why do you think that is?

HALL: I feel as though the play that the critics wanted me to write was the play that I was never interested in writing. This play is highly fictionalized, almost anti-historical, even though it starts on April 3, 1968. I feel as though the King that the critics wanted to see on stage was the iconic King. They wanted to see the "I Have A Dream King" and this is the King that I'm not interested in exploring.

I'm interested in exploring the King - when the door closes on room 306, who is this man? Who is this man who is fanging for a cigarette? Who is this man who is scared and jumping at the sound of thunder? Who is this man who misses his family? It's a very human approach to Dr. King. I feel as though we have put him on this pedestal. You know, you go into my grandmother's house and there's two pictures on the wall. There's Jesus and there's Dr. King. He is up there with Jesus, and I definitely feel as though this play is a taking down of him, taking him off the wall, making him flesh and blood.

MARTIN: And sitting him down at that table.

HALL: Yeah. Sitting him down at that table.

MARTIN: Taking him off the wall and sitting him at the table. It's a two character play, as I think many people know. It's set in the Memphis hotel, the Lorraine Motel. After he's back at the hotel after the speech, the premise is that a young housekeeper, Camae, brings him a cup of coffee and then they converse. And here's a clip of Bowman Wright as Dr. King and Joaquina Kalukango as Camae. And let's just play a short clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE MOUNTAINTOP")

BOWMAN WRIGHT: (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) Women do like men with wrinkles, don't they?

JOAQUINA KALUKANGO: (as Camae) I don't. I likes young and wild, like me.

WRIGHT: (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) Like you?

KALUKANGO: (as Camae) Yes, Preacher King.

WRIGHT: (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) Well, I used to be young and wild myself.

KALUKANGO: (as Camae) Well, you's a preacher. That's part of y'all job requirement. How you know what you ain't supposed to do if you ain't never done it yourself? Folks won't listen to you otherwise.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: There's a lot of humor in the play, but it also...

HALL: Yes. Some people get very surprised by that.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, as you say, though, it does show King is vain. He does like to smoke. He does have an eye for a pretty girl. You were very clear that that's the human side that you were interested in. Why? Just wondering, why? How did it come to you that way?

HALL: Well, I always say showing the humanity in our heroes allows us to see the hero in ourselves. We feel as though - well, some people feel as though, oh, Dr. King - you know, I'll never be Dr. King. I'll never do what he did. I'll never accomplish what he accomplished. Nobel Peace Prize. No, never, never. And that's really what the play is attempting to do. It's like this was a man who was just a man. He was quite extraordinary, but he was still ordinary at the same time and I feel as though it's inspired so many different people when they come to see the show. They're like, oh, my gosh, I do that. When I come, you know, off of my business trip, the first thing I do is go use the restroom, too, like just very ordinary things that we think, you know, the people that we put on high don't necessarily do.

MARTIN: Let me just play another clip from the play and, again, I'm speaking with playwright Katori Hall about her award-winning play, "The Mountaintop." Again, this is from the Arena Stage version, which is being staged now. You're going to hear Bowman Wright and Joaquina Kalukango.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE MOUNTAINTOP")

WRIGHT: (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) I wonder where they get it from, this hatred of us. You know, I done seen so many white people hate us, Camae. Bombing folks homes, shooting folks, blowing up children.

KALUKANGO: (as Camae) Make you scared to bring a Negro child in this world the way they be blowing 'em up.

WRIGHT: (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) Yes, Camae. And they hate so easily and we - we love too much.

KALUKANGO: (as Camae) Well, last time I heard, you was preaching to everybody the same and Negro folk, white folk, we all alike.

WRIGHT: (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) At the most human level - yes, yes - we're all alike.

KALUKANGO: (as Camae) Well, what's thing we all got in common?

WRIGHT: (as Martin Luther King, Jr.) We scared. We all scared.

MARTIN: Katori, do you mind? I hope it's OK if I'm asking you this way. You are a very young woman and that is a very deep thought.

HALL: Really?

MARTIN: I think so. There are a lot of very profound thoughts in this play. There are a lot of very profound ideas and I'm not going to tell - do much about what happens that night because I don't want to ruin it for people. But where does your idea come from about these thoughts of why it is that people treat each other the way they do? Where does it come from in you?

HALL: I definitely think it's because, you know, I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. I used to say I'm a post-civil rights movement baby, but I actually think we're still in the movement. And, being black, being young, growing up in that particular region, the fact that, you know, my family was the first black family to desegregate this particular neighborhood in Memphis and, you know, the fact that, at a very young age, I had to contend with people hating me for no reason at all or thinking that they hated me, you know, just due to our unfortunate history as Americans.

And so, you know, I just had to figure out, where does this come from? Why are human beings like this? What are we fighting for? Are we fighting for acknowledgement? Are we fighting for space? These are questions that I began to ask myself because of things that were said to me. Oh, you're a nigger. Oh, you this. Oh, you're not supposed to be at this school. You know, I was always, like, the one black child in the middle of, like, all these white children at school. Even though, like, it was a desegregated school, there was still, like, segregation that was happening within the school, so it's just - I think, in order to survive, you have to, you know, question the world inside your head and it's prime for exploring those big questions that I have of humanity.

MARTIN: You know, artists describe, but they also imagine and that is one of the things that I think people appreciate about Dr. King is that he helped them imagine a world that they could not yet see. So I have to ask you how you took yourself into the mindset of that time, given that - I understand that you grew up in a neighborhood where you still had to confront a lot of, you know, prejudice, but at your age, I mean, I don't know that you grew up in a time when people routinely told you what you couldn't do based on what...

HALL: Yes. There wasn't...

MARTIN: ...who you are.

HALL: I could drink at whatever water fountain I wanted to.

MARTIN: Yeah.

HALL: Definitely. You know, my mother actually picked cotton. She was an 11-year-old girl who needed school clothes and the way that she was going to get them is if she picked cotton in Arkansas. So, sometimes, I look at my mother's hands and I see these hands that have been through so much. And then I look at my hands. I'm just this writer. You know, how lucky I am to not be picking cotton. I'm dealing with paper.

And I recognize, you know, the things that my ancestors have been through and I really feel as though I have been able to imagine that world by just listening to the stories that are just, you know, around us and these stories - you know, I call them flesh and blood libraries. You know, these people who have these tales and who have walked these long roads, they have something to say and I feel as though more writers, more artists need to, you know, go to these flesh and blood libraries because they are dying out.

MARTIN: I do want to mention that the character of Camae is named for your mom and the idea is inspired in part by the fact that she had wanted to go hear Dr. King speak, but her mother told her no and that this is an imagining. But, you know, Camae cusses a lot in this play. Does your mom cuss like that? And how did she feel about you having her cussing like that?

HALL: That's so funny. She does, but what's really wonderful about Camae is that she apologizes for it. You know, she knows she ain't supposed to be cussing in front of Dr. King like that, but you know, she's a very saucy, sassy young woman and, you know, she's almost the - she's the antithesis to Dr. King in terms of what her political leanings are. She's, you know, very much an honorary Black Panther, you know, but it's very interesting. A lot of people don't know that. Even Dr. King was beginning to question his particular tactics in 1968. The walking and the marching - it just wasn't as effective as it had been before and so, you know, there was this sense that the movement was dying out and there was a great depression that settled upon him because of this great frustration.

MARTIN: Well, we can't wait to see what you imagine next. Will you come back and tell us about your next project?

HALL: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Katori Hall is the playwright behind "The Mountaintop." It is being performed now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. until May 12th. It's also been performed at theatres around the country. Katori was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City.

Katori Hall, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HALL: And thanks so much for having me.

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