Memphis Playwright to Debut on Broadway with The Mountaintop

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With her Broadway debut set for later this week, a playwright from Memphis returned to the historic setting of her play. Set at the Lorraine Motel, the story is about the final moments of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Katori Hall's treatment of this civil rights icon has gained her critical acclaim.


Craigmont High School graduate Katori Hall had a typical upbringing in Memphis, but because of her ordinary look at an extraordinary human being Hall is now an award-winning playwright.

"I have been so blessed that we have had the amount of success thus far."

Her play, The Mountaintop, is a fictional account of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last hours. It opens Thursday on Broadway. King is depicted by academy award nominated actor Samuel L. Jackson, while actress Angela Bassett co-stars as a maid who forces King to confront his destiny.

The play unfolds on April 3, 1968 - just hours after the civil rights leader delivered his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech at Mason Temple Church.

I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't really matter with me now because I've been to the Mountaintop.

Hall drew inspiration from her mother, who grew up just around the corner from the Lorraine Motel. In fact, her mother had been planning to go hear Dr. King speak at Mason Temple. But "Big Mama", Hall's grandmother, was not exactly keen on the idea.

"She was so inspired by him like so many people in the community were... She asked her mama, we call my grandmama "Big Mama", she asked Big Mama 'Can I go hear Dr. King speak?' and unfortunately there was a rumor going around someone was going to get Dr. King."

"Big Mama was like, 'You know someone going to bomb the church... You ain't going nowhere.' So my mother never got an opportunity to hear those words '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. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Dr. King was assassinated the very next day outside room 306 at the Lorraine Motel.

"Because my mother shared this story with me at such a young age it became part of my blood memory."

The Mountaintop had a world premiere in London, where it received the Oliver Award last year for "Best New Play." The win made Hall, in her early thirties, the first black woman in history to receive that honor. While she is proud of the win, Hall says she is even prouder of the fact that she has helped bring the legacy of Dr. King to a new generation.

"The awards are nice but for me I think the cherry on top is when I look out in the audience and I see a congregation of King's dreams. There are young people, there are old people. There are people of every color... Everybody is represented."

As for the star studded cast, Hall says she just lucked out on that. Her director, Kenny Leon, just happened to be friends with actor Samuel L. Jackson.

"He was just an incredible choice and we are so glad he approached the material with great respect and he has such a since of responsibility."

The only other character in the play, a motel maid, is portrayed by actress Angela Bassett.

"She actually ended up being the last person we auditioned for the role... She came in and she was utterly divine. In the first 30 seconds I just looked at Ken and made a face like we would be stupid if we didn't take this woman."

And Hall is hoping audiences all over with think it's a brilliant idea to embrace the play as a "must see."

The Mountaintop opens Thursday on Broadway in New York, and tickets for this weekend have already sold out. The play runs through January.

LINK | Watch King's full "Mountaintop" speech at MLKinMemphis.com