By MARK BLANKENSHIPNote: TDF members can purchase discount tickets to The Mountaintop through December 24.
Playwright Katori Hall has the best kind of laugh---a loud explosion that almost forces you to laugh along. During a recent phone interview, she was so buoyant and effusive, laughing at herself and her own good fortune, that it was easy to imagine her slapping five with passers-by.
She's got plenty of reasons to be in a good mood. The Signature Theatre just announced she's one of five playwrights to receive a five-year residency award, meaning Signature will produce three of her plays in the next five years while offering health insurance and other support.
More immediately, Hall's debuting on Broadway with The Mountaintop, now in previews at the Bernard Jacobs. The play imagines a meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. (Samuel L. Jackson) and a mysterious hotel maid (Angela Bassett), and when it premiered on London's West End, it won the 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play---the equivalent of a Tony.
Because of this success---and the movie stars speaking her lines---there are high expectations for Hall's Broadway bow, but if she's nervous, she's hiding it well. "I've written so many other things that I don't feel like I'm putting all my eggs in one basket," she says. "Maybe that's why I'm not nervous. I'm thinking about a larger body of work, and The Mountaintop is just the beginning of presenting that body of work."
That attitude has defined her involvement with this production. She's been present in rehearsals, but she's been hands-off. "After the table work, after I've answered questions about the text, I have to step away and let them do their job because I've already done my job," she says. "I allow myself not to be there because they need to discover the play on their own. It's not about me imposing what I think the play should be or what I think the play has been."
She might not feel the same if The Mountaintop were still in development, but since the play's had two full productions and many staged readings, it's essentially complete. "It's very important for a playwright to be able to give her baby over," Hall says. "For me, it's the third time I've given the baby over. The first time, it was like, 'Oh, we're going to Kindergarten, Mom.' I was in the room and hands-on because they were a small kid. And then they went to junior high when the play was on the West End. Now I feel like the play is going off to college, and I really need to wave from the car and say, 'Bye bye, honey. Go do your work. Go make your own life.'"
But even "from the car," Hall is learning things about the show. In her script, Camae, the maid, is described as a woman in her 20s, and Hall initially balked at the idea of Bassett, 53, playing the role. "When Angela came into audition, I thought, 'Oh, she's of a certain age. I'm really committed to finding a younger actress,'" she recalls. "But what I was actually looking for was someone who could defer to King. I was looking for this quality that young people have when they are in the midst of power. They sometimes kowtow, they're sometimes very shy, they shrink themselves."
She continues, "When [Bassett] auditioned and played all these colors, I thought, 'Oh, that's what I was looking for.' Because there were some actresses who were very young who came in and didn't do that.
"At this point, I'm excited to see new chemistry between two completely different actors. I'm very open to things playing out in different ways."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor