Her mother was also skilled at storytelling. Hall and her four older sisters would gather around the table after the news and listen to their parents recount their day: “What the boss man said that day, or did or didn’t do. My parents would inhabit these people’s voices. It was like watching one-person shows at the kitchen table.”
In elementary school, Katori was admitted to a gifted program that exposed students to the arts. Every other month they would go on a field trip. She was about 10 when she first saw “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” at a Memphis playhouse.
“It was magical,” Hall recalled.
In 1999, Katori graduated from high school as valedictorian and won a full scholarship to Columbia University. An acting course changed her life: The teacher assigned students to research scenes with characters that looked like them.
“I had an acting partner, a young black woman, just like me, from the South,” Hall recalls. They searched but could find nothing. “When we came back to the teacher, we said, ‘The Columbia library does not have a play with two black women.’ ”
The teacher could not think of a play, either. At that moment, a thought popped into Katori’s mind: “I’m going to have to write those plays then.”
She graduated, then went to Harvard University’s American Repertory Theatre, a graduate training program that includes a residency at the Moscow Art Theatre School. After graduating, she spent two years getting acting gigs in New York — small parts in television’s “Law and Order” — and worked in the communications department at XM radio. “Oprah would come in. Jay-Z and Beyonce. I was surrounded by people living their dreams.”
One day, she wrote “I am a writer” on a Post-It note and stuck it to her computer screen. She overheard her boss telling somebody that Hall should quit and just become a writer. “They would catch me working on plays at my desk,” Hall said. “They needed to fire me or I needed to quit.”
It would be a standoff.
The next week she received an admissions letter to the Juilliard School. “I had only one play, ‘Hoodoo Love,’ ” about a woman who escapes the cotton fields of Mississippi and travels to Memphis to pursue a dream of singing the blues. “Hoodoo Love” was produced in 2007. That same year, she began writing “The Mountaintop,” inspired by her mother’s stories of King.
As a young woman, her mother wanted to go to the Mason Temple to hear King speak in 1968, but bomb threats scared her. “When my mom told me that story, I thought, ‘If my mother was afraid to go to the church, then Dr. King must have been really afraid to go to the church.’ ”
Her mother always regretted not going. The maid character in “The Mountaintop” is based on her. “It was a way to put my mother in the room with King because I knew she didn’t get a chance on April 3, 1968.”
Hall says she “opened ‘The Mountaintop’ in England because the British ‘are used to cracking open the masks of their kings.’ ” After it won the Olivier, “The Mountaintop” premiered in 2011 on Broadway starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
Hall was still in her 20s. Her rise to Broadway, she said, was surreal. “I feel blessed,” she said. But the play has generated controversy, for — as one critic wrote — taking liberties with dialogue, which is not drawn from King’s speeches or writings. Hall says the play is a magical reimagining of what might have happened that night before his assassination. “I never, ever read the comments below an article on the Web. People are mean. I’m a human being,” Hall said.
She maintains a determination to write plays that interest her. “If you want a play with King on a pedestal, there is a play for you over there. If you want a sanitized version of black women, there is a play over there. I can’t please everybody.”
Halls says she doesn’t write to provoke. “Most of the time, when I’m writing, I’m writing for myself. I’m thinking, ‘What will my character say at this time? What will come out of her mouth?’ I create individuals so real to me, I sometimes start talking to them. Then I let them loose on the page.”
runs March 29 through May 12, Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington. 202-488-3300.