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Playwright attempts to bring MLK 'to life'

By Amber Payne, NBC Nightly News producer

Taking place on April 3, 1968, The Mountaintop is a new play on Broadway that reimagines the events of the night before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just after delivering one of his most memorable speeches. NBC's Chris Jansing reports.

Playwright Katori Hall says her job is to put human beings - not saints - on the stage.

In Hall’s new Broadway play The Mountaintop, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, Dr. Martin Luther King receives no special treatment. The Reverend King is stripped of his superhero status and portrayed as a man who smoked, drank and was a shameless flirt. He has holes in his socks and his feet smell. One moment he's a grand orator and lecturer; the next he’s chauvinistic and self-assured, at times even acutely paranoid, grave and forsaken.

"It just brings him to life," Hall says, "and brings back the desire to push forward and continue his legacy, and rethink where we are as human beings, where we are as Memphians. He's not a statue."

The provocative play re-imagines the last night of King's life. After he delivered what became his final speech, "I’ve Been to the Mountaintop" on April 3, 1968, King retired to his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. He was assassinated the next day on the balcony. 

Katori Hall discussed the challenges of being a playwright with NBC's Chris Jansing.

Hall wondered how King had spent his final night in that room.

Her desire to tell the story was no fluke. Growing up in Memphis, she says, the spirit of King's mission was built into her consciousness, his voice always in her ears and her heart.

Walk into her grandmother's house and you see two portraits on the wall: King and Jesus. Hall became closely familiar with King's speeches in her childhood. Martin Luther King Day was not just a day off from school, but a solemn occasion, a day of remembrance and silence.

Hall sees herself as part of a generation of reapers, gleaning the benefits of the civil rights movement. 

"I grew up at a time when Memphis was changing," she says, "where I would call myself a post-civil-rights baby." Hall had many white friends and had sleepovers with them, but her parents had never stepped inside the house of a white person.

Her inspiration for writing about King's final hours is personal. Hall's mother grew up around the corner from the Lorraine and wanted to see King speak at the Mason Temple that night, but she was only 15, and her mother - Hall's grandmother - refused to let her go because of the danger. Not going was the biggest regret of her mother’s life. 

NBC's Chris Jansing hears from "The Mountaintop" ensemble, playwright Katori Hall, Director Kenny Leon and actors Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson on why "The Mountaintop" is important and what they want the audience to take away.     

To honor her mother, Hall wrote her into the play, naming the central character after her, Camae. 

Hall’s first breakthrough came in 2010, when she picked up London's coveted Olivier award. At age 28, she was the first black woman to win the UK's equivalent of the Tony Award for best new play.

In an arena where, as Hall puts it, "American drama is still dominated by white men, dead white men," she's very proud to take a seat at the table. But she's also honest about the challenges and frustrations of being a young, black playwright, yearning to see black life and black women represented on stage. 

"The great white way has been quite exclusive," Hall said, hoping more black female playwrights will follow her example. "It's a testament to change."

Despite the critical acclaim, Hall's play has been met with some controversy. 

"Some people might say this [play] is a desecration to [King's] legacy," Hall said. But she disagrees. "The desecration to his legacy is that we are still sometimes segregated along color lines. That's the desecration to his legacy. Not this play."

By looking back at the moments before King’s life ended, Hall ultimately looks ahead to the present, and deconstructs how far society has gone, and how far it still has to go. She hopes the show is a call to action, a passing of the baton to the next generation. 

"I want them to carry on the fact that we still have so much work to do, and that we all have to be aware, and we all are complicit, and we all can change the world," Hall said. "Ordinary folk, we can do extraordinary things as well. We all can be kings."