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Broadway To Get A View From MLK's 'Mountaintop'

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Broadway To Get A View From MLK's 'Mountaintop'

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Broadway To Get A View From MLK's 'Mountaintop'

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The Reverend Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JUNIOR: I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight, in spite of a storm warning.

BLOCK: Forty-three years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. took the stage at the Mason Temple, a black church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in town to march in support of striking sanitation workers.

The Rev. Dr. KING: Something's happening in Memphis. Something is happening in our world.

BLOCK: That was the night of April 3rd, 1968. The civil rights leader's voice grew in intensity as he built up to these now-famous words.

The Rev. Dr. KING: I just want to do God's will. And he's 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.

BLOCK: Dr. King spent the night at the Lorraine Motel. The next evening, he was assassinated as he stood on the motel balcony.

A new play imagines Martin Luther King's last night. It's called "The Mountaintop," and it takes place in King's motel room. "The Mountaintop" has captured attention on both sides of the Atlantic. It won the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play in the U.K. That's like winning a Tony in the U.S. And it's expected to be staged on Broadway this fall starring Halle Barry and Samuel L. Jackson.

"The Mountaintop" was written by a 29-year-old playwright, Katori Hall, who joins me now here in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Ms. KATORI HALL (Playwright, "The Mountaintop"): Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And let's talk a bit about the play. Two characters, Dr. King and a chambermaid named Camae. What happens to these two as they interconnect?

Ms. HALL: Well, it's after King gives "The Mountaintop" speech at Mason Temple, and he comes in late at night, and he actually wants to work on a new sermon called "Why America is Going to Hell." And so he orders a cup of coffee from room service, and Camae is the maid who brings it up.

And during the night, they challenge each other. They talk about the future; they talk about the past; they talk about politics; and she is not who we think she is.

BLOCK: And we'll leave the mystery there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Let's listen to part of a scene where he is talking to her about the sanitation workers' movement there in Memphis.

(Soundbite of play, "The Mountaintop")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As The Rev. Dr. King) Me and my men, we organized the march for these...

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As Camae) Garbage men?

Unidentified Man #1: (As The Rev. Dr. King) Sanitation workers. There must have been thousands upon thousands of people there, thousands, everybody from old men to teenage girls to little boys holding up signs that said I am a man.

BLOCK: That's from the performance in London in 2009. Katori Hall, how much - I mean, it would inescapable to have Dr. King's voice, his cadence, his inflection in your head as you're writing those words.

Ms. HALL: Well, he is everywhere. Having grown up in Memphis, Tennessee, myself, you know, the ghost of Dr. King has haunted me. And so I grew up always having his voice in my ears and in my heart and in my mind. But obviously, I'm sure it's quite hard for an actor to step into that voice because it is so well-known.

And so, for me, I always tell an actor who is about to play King: It's more about capturing the essence of him. It's more about capturing the charisma.

BLOCK: Talk a bit about where the idea for this play, "The Mountaintop," came from.

Ms. HALL: Well, the idea comes from a piece of family history. My mother, whose name is Carrie Mae(ph), I named the character Camae after - it's her nickname -she grew up around the corner from the Lorraine Motel. And she was very much a part of the movement. She was a 15-year-old girl. And so, when she heard that he was coming to speak at Mason Temple, she was like: I want to go, I want to go.

And Big Mama, you know, my grandmamma, her mother, was like: You know they going to bomb that church, girl. You know they going to bomb that church. So you need to sit your butt down, and you ain't going to that church. So my mother didn't go, and the next day he was assassinated. And that was the biggest regret of her life.

And I wanted to put both of them in the same room and give my mother that opportunity that she didn't have in 1968.

BLOCK: Did your mom talk to you a lot about that over the years, about she could have been there, it was his last speech and she missed it?

Ms. HALL: You know, she would come back to it as the years went by, and just to talk about who Dr. King is to her and to a lot of black people. Like, you walk into my grandmother's house and you see two pictures on the wall. You see Dr. King and you see Jesus. Dr. King is placed on this amazing, huge pedestal.

And I think if she had been able to hear him speak, maybe she would have lived her life a little differently. That's what she said to me. Maybe she would have decided to dream a little bigger and start that business that she wanted to start or become that lawyer that she wanted to become just by being in the presence of this magnificent man who achieved so much because he was such an inspiration, not only to her but to so many people around the world.

BLOCK: Let's talk a bit about that pedestal that Dr. King has been put on. Your portrayal of Dr. King is very human. He's vain.

Ms. HALL: Definitely.

BLOCK: He's wondering whether he should shave his moustache.

(soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: He's extremely anxious, with good cause, about death threats against him. He's got holes in his socks. His feet smell. And he is lascivious, no two ways about that. This is a beautiful chambermaid who's come to his room.

(Soundbite of play, "The Mountaintop")

Unidentified Man #1: (As The Rev. Dr. King) You sure is pretty, Camae.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Camae) That about the third time you done told me that.

Unidentified Man #1: (As The Rev. Dr. King) Second.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Camae) The first time, you told me with your eyes.

Unidentified Man #1: (As The Rev. Dr. King) You saw me?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Camae) Hell, a blind man could've seen the way you were boring holes through my clothes. Aw, are you blushing?

Unidentified Man #1: (As The Rev. Dr. King) Which is really hard for a black man to do. I'm embarrassed.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Camae) Aw, sugar, shush. You just a man. If I was you, I'd be staring at me, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: It's funny, when I started writing the play, I sent it to a couple of directors who I held on high, I put on a pedestal, and these people were like: How dare you do this? Who do you think you are, little black girl? Yes, he may have indulged a little bit. Maybe he did dabble with other women, but how dare you? He is the only thing that we have.

And for me, I think a warts-and-all portrayal of Dr. King is important because there's this extraordinary human being who is actually quite ordinary. And I feel as though by portraying him with his flaws and foibles, we, too, can see, as human beings who have these flaws, that we, too, can be Kings; we, too, can carry on that baton that he has passed down to us.

BLOCK: Your mother, who never did get to hear his speech in Memphis, did get to go to your play?

Ms. HALL: She did. I - oh my gosh, so - it's so funny because she didn't know that I had named the character after her. So when she heard it, she freaked out.

I was sitting beside her, and when she heard Carrie Mae, Camae, Camae, Camae, she just, like, went: (squeals) and beating herself on her legs. And it was funny because the mother of the guy playing King was sitting next to her, and I bet she was looking at her like, this woman is crazy.

And I was scared because the maid cusses so much. So I was like: Oh my God, my mom's going to get me for cussing so much in this play. But afterwards, she just leapt to her feet, and she was just so proud of me.

And I saw her throughout the entire play, nodding her head, saying mmm-hmm, mm-hmm. So it was almost like she was being transported back into time for that hour and a half in London.

BLOCK: Katori Hall, her play is "The Mountaintop." Thanks so much.

Ms. HALL: Thank you.

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