1. What was your inspiration for this story?
My mother grew up around the corner from the Lorraine Motel, and when she was a 15-year-old girl Dr. King came to Memphis to speak in support of the sanitation workers strike. The day was April 3, 1968, and she heard that he was going to be speaking at Mason Temple. She asked her mother (my grandmother) if she could go, as she had never heard him speak before, and Big Mama said, “You betta set yo tail on down somewhere. That church gone get bombed, you know somebody out to get that man.” That was the word on the street. In fact, Big Mama’s best friend Miss Ida worked as a cook for the the mayor at the time. And she overheard him at the dinner table say to his guests, “If Dr. King comes back to Memphis, he ain’t gonna make it out of here alive.” The danger was palpable. Thinking about the speculation, the rumors, the truth of the situation, my mother decided to stay at home. It was a rainy night, almost like God was already crying. The next day he was assassinated and she was not able to hear the great orator admit that he wasn’t going to get to the Promised Land. Not going the night before, became one of the biggest regrets of her life. Hearing that story, over and over again growing up in Memphis made an impression on my heart and mind. So in 2007, against the backdrop of Obama about to run for the US Presidency and on the eve of the 40-year commemoration of King’s death, I decided to put pen to paper and out poured The Mountaintop.
2. Could you explain your process as a writer?
I am constantly inspired. In the case of The Mountaintop, obviously, my mother’s stories my jumping off point. But every play is different. With my play Hurt Village, I was working at The Commercial Appeal, as an intern, and I remember finding out that this particular housing project was about to be demolished. I remember passing by it every day on my way to work asking myself the question, “Where all these people gonna go?” Looking at how America was dealing with those entrenched in the cycle of poverty was the inspiration. Then you look at a play Our Lady of Kibeho which details the investigation of three young women in Rwanda who claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary. I traveled to Rwanda in 2009 and was instantly took by the story so fast, that I sat in the chapel and wrote the first act quickly in my head. I’m often inspired by true stories, but I heavily fictionalize those truths to serve a deeper truth that only well-told lies can tell. I’m also a writer who writes more from place than race. I feel as though I’m a global citizen who understands she’s from the South. My work has a feeling of being tiny and wide at the same time.
3. What projects are you currently working on?
Ooooo, Lawd! Too many. I’m actually stepping into television right now. I’m developing Stephen L. Carter’s book The Emperor of Ocean Park into a television series. I’m also in the midst of turning Hurt Village into a film. I’m directing my first film project called Arkabutla, which is about a black cowboy, in October. I’m in the middle of casting for that right now. I’m looking to turn another play of mine, Pussy Valley into a series as well. I’m interested in looking at stories that are like comets–they have arc that traverses an entire universe, they have a very long tail. Long form storytelling is what I thought I was going to do. Novel writing seemed was my first love, but to have an opportunity to write visual novels appeal to me as well.
But of course, I will never leave the theater. I’m working on a new draft of my play The Blood Quilt and a piece for the National in London. I stays busy, all day e’erday.
4. What would you like the audience to take away from this story?
Ferguson. Sandra Bland. Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter. Charleston. These recent flash points are not merely hashtags, they are mirrors to this in-process society we live in. We do not live in a post-racial America, having a black president is not the yardstick by which we should be judging racial progression, having a black man not get shot in the back by a police officer should be the metric. We are all complicit when the American dream turns into the American nightmare. I want people to be awakened at the end of the play, and realize that despite their ordinariness they can be quite extra-ordinary and change this wild world we live in. At the end of the play, I want them to be shaken from their apathy, I want them to participate in the long arch towards justice.
5. One piece of advice for anyone producing this play?
Be fearless. Often times, people feel as though the play has to be a historical reproduction of what exactly happened, even down to the set and to the type of cigarettes being smoked, but I dare directors to embrace the magic and the spirituality of the piece from jump. Actor/director Roger Guenveur Smith, directed one of the best regional productions at San Diego Rep of The Mountaintop that I got a chance to see. It was part chore poem, part pantomime, part rock concert. The essence of a revolutionary was inherent throughout the piece. It was truly exquisite, and reminded me why I love the theater.
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