April 4, 2013 at 12:02 pm EST | by Patrick Folliard
The humanity of MLK
Robert O'Hara, theater, gay news, Washington Blade

New York-based Robert O’Hara says he finds it artistically rewarding to both write and direct. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

‘The Mountaintop’
Through May 12
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street, SW

Early in playwright Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” (now at Arena Stage), Martin Luther King, Jr., smokes a cigarette and audibly uses the restroom.

“Quickly this iconic figure of history is defined as very human,” says the play’s director Robert O’Hara. “This can be hard on those who prefer that King retain his saint-like status, but really there’s nothing to be offended about. The work’s theatricality makes it clear we’re not doing bio drama but rather we’re asking ‘What if?’ The playwright is exploring King’s psyche.”

Set in Memphis’ Lorraine Motel in 1968 on the last night of King’s life, Hall’s play imagines an unexpected meeting between the already legendary 39-year-old civil rights activist and a feisty 20-year-old maid, Camae. Their 80-minute exchange (at turns funny, spirited and serious) is filled with biography and politics, prompting King to examine his past and unfinished dreams.

Arena’s production (featuring Bowman Wright as King and Joaquina Kalukango as the maid) is in collaboration with Houston’s Alley Theatre where it played before moving to D.C.

“But being in Washington makes it a different experience,” says O’Hara, who’s gay. “President Obama and the Martin Luther King Memorial are here. Dr. King made his ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ here. Washington audiences seem more political. Arena’s Kreeger Theater is much more intimate than the Houston venue. So much about the production is altered because it’s in this new Washington environment.”

O’Hara was introduced to the play in its early developmental stages. “The director originally slated to do the workshop reading pulled out at the last minute and I stepped in. In those days, a lot of people were cold on the project. But from the start, I liked how it revealed King’s humanity and enjoyed its explosive and erotic elements.”

Soon others would agree: In 2009, Hall’s play premiered in London where it was a sleeper hit, winning that season’s Olivier Award for best new play. It opened on Broadway in 2011 in a production starring big names Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.

As an undergraduate at Tufts University, O’Hara rather fleetingly considered a career in law. But by his third year, he knew he was destined to work in theater. O’Hara went on to at Columbia University where he studied directing. His mother wasn’t thrilled and suggested her son find something practical to fall back on. He did — playwriting. Not exactly what mom had in mind, but at 43, O’Hara has forged a busy and productive career involving both.

“With directing you have to wait for the phone to ring,” says O’Hara who lives in New York City with his longtime partner, a psychiatrist and avid theatergoer. “And others control whether you work or not; whereas with playwriting you can write whenever you want. Hopefully you have a few commissions to sustain you. I like to alternate the two. I’m happiest when I have a couple things going on at once.”

To live in New York, many playwrights have to work elsewhere. For O’Hara, that frequently means Washington. He’s premiered several plays here including his wild, time-traveling tragicomedy, “Insurrection: Holding History” at Theatre Alliance, and Woolly Mammoth’s productions of “Antebellum” (his exploration of race and history), and “Bootycandy,”a terrific autobiographical work about growing up black and gay in Cincinnati which he also directed.  O’Hara is currently playwright in residence at Woolly Mammoth, a loosely defined gig that doesn’t require him to live in D.C.

“This town has been very good to me. Washington’s theater community is vibrant and it has been very receptive to my work. I’ve always enjoyed my time here. And now I’m happy to be working at Arena Stage.”

O’Hara’s career isn’t focused on being black and gay. “I don’t tend to think about that when I wake up in the morning. The same way I’m not conscious about being upright and breathing. Maybe other people look at me and see black and gay. I don’t feel that way,” he says. “I’ve never really felt part of a group on any subject. I don’t know many out writer/directors of color. I’m not interested in writing the well-made play. But what separates me is also what makes me unique. And while I think of myself as a shy person, I’m increasingly confident when it comes to my work.”

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