On this last night before his assassination, King is portrayed by playwright Katori Hall as nothing more than ordinary — a man who smokes, likes a little whiskey in his coffee and takes a call from “Mrs. King” while flirting with a hotel maid waiting near his bed.
Hall, a 31-year-old playwright who has burst onto the international theater scene, was not worried in the least about what people might say about portraying King not as an icon, but as a regular man, struggling with his last speech in a dank motel room.
“He had vulnerabilities and fears,” Hall says during a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, where she has just returned from a trip to Africa to research her next play. “This is a man that provided a fundamental shift in American society. King forced us to see people of color are not second-class citizens; they are equal. He did this extraordinary thing. But he wasn’t superhuman. He always said, ‘I’m a sinner. Not a saint.’ That is the King you will see in ‘Mountaintop.’ . . . It was important to see the humanity in this hero so we can see the hero in ourselves.”
When “The Mountaintop,” which opens at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater on March 29, premiered in London, critics called her fearless and audiences wondered was this daring young playwright was. The play won the 2010 Olivier Award, equivalent to the Tony, for best new play.
Robert O’Hara, who is directing “The Mountaintop” at Arena, said the rest of the world is just catching up to Hall, whose work includes these 2012 premieres: “Hurt Village,” which starred Tony-winner Tonya Pinkins at Signature Theatre in New York; “Children of Killers,” an examination of Rwandan genocide that opened its American premiere at Castillo Theatre in New York; and “WHADDABLOODCLOT!!!,” which was staged at Williamstown Theatre Festival and featured a well-heeled woman who wakes up one day to find that her crisp New England accent has turned into thick Jamaican patois.
“The recognition of ‘The Mountaintop’ allowed other people to look at her work,” O’Hara said. “She has been been writing all this time. Her mind writes very much in a no-holds-barred type of writing. She starts the play off with King smoking and peeing. If you don’t get up and leave by that time, you deserve what you get. She wanted him to be a real person. King indeed was a heavy smoker.”
Heroes, he said, carry the weight of the world. “Their burdens are great and their demons are large. But we don’t want to actually accept that our leaders have flaws.”
Hall, who grew up in Memphis, admits she is complicated, much like her characters. “I’m very Southern in the way I walk in the world,” she said. “I love to laugh. I love to eat. I love to hug people. But if somebody makes me mad, my neck may roll. I can be aggressive with a Southern twang.”