Tell It on the Mountain

by Stacey Kors Published Winter 2011-12
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On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in mid-November, Katori Hall is lunching at Nizza, a favorite spot between Hell’s Kitchen and the Theater District, before auditions for Hurt Village. The Mountaintop, despite a mixed reception from the press and doubtless aided by its star power and provocative buzz, continues to see strong ticket sales and had its run extended until late January. 

After dozens of Broadway curtains and interviews, Hall appears more polished and professional than she had only two months before. She is still racially reactive — she refers to the “Lily-White Way,” even though she is one of three African-American women playwrights debuting on Broadway this season — but is now more diplomatic and contemplative. Regardless of whether she had intended to court controversy, Hall has assumed the mantle of responsibility that comes with it.

Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in <em>The Mountaintop</em> / photo: Joan Marcus“I don’t know why the play has gotten the response it has,” she says. “I haven’t, oddly, thought about it too much. I don’t read reviews, though I hear little bits here and there from people who are arguing around me, like friends who send me e-mails saying, ‘Fuck the white man’ and stuff like that. So I can’t say I have a defense, or a response to the critics.”

Yet when asked whether she feels that the lyricism of her language has been obfuscated by what some critics have labeled a miscast and heavy-handed production, Hall cautiously speculates on the reasoning behind the more negative reviews. “In London,” she says, “it was a very understated production. We didn’t have all the pomp and circumstance because we had no money. I wonder: are people responding to the play, or are they responding to choices made surrounding the play?”

She pauses thoughtfully, as if weighing the possibilities, and then tactfully changes course. “My work has a very different aesthetic, and what I’m gathering is that people were very surprised that it wasn’t historical and super serious. Not only was I putting King in a room with a woman and giving him stinky feet, but the play has humorous undertones. I think that really threw people for a loop and made some people angry.”

Hall wonders whether some theatergoers also felt alienated by her magical-realist approach to a relatively recent historical event, especially one so powerfully ingrained in America’s collective consciousness.

“For some people, The Mountaintop isn’t magic realism, it’s supernatural,” she says. “Not everybody believes in angels. I know I do, even though I’m not very religious. I do believe in heaven and earth being on the same plane, and spirits being able to speak to us. My mama’s seen ghosts, you know, and so maybe that’s why that way of approaching theater is alive in me. 

“Or maybe it has something to do with being African-American, with that being part of my blood memory, where there’s hoodoo and magic and roots. Other people might think it’s hokey. All right,” Hall says with an arch smile, “let my grandma put a hex on you, and let’s see what you think in a year.”

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