by Mike Hoban
‘The Mountaintop’ – Written by Katori Hall; Directed by Kent Gash; Set Design by Jason Sherwood; Costume Design by Kara Harmon; Lighting design by Dawn Chiang, Sound Design by Justin Ellington, Projection Design by Shawn Duan. Presented by Trinity Repertory, 201 Washington St, Providence, RI through February 12th.
When I was a young boy in 1968, I remember watching television one night when the CBS Evening News came on. “Good evening. Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee,” deadpanned Walter Cronkite, an actual newsman reading the news. I ran to wake my grandmother, who was napping, and asked, “Nana, who is Martin Luther King?”
“He’s a great man,” she replied. “Why?”
“They shot him. He’s dead,” I said.
“Oh my God,” she said, “When will it stop?”
I didn’t know what she meant until a year later, when I saw my mother tearing up as Moms Mabely sang “Abraham, Martin and John” – a song about the assassinations of the Kennedys (Bobby was killed two months after King), Lincoln and Dr. King – on the Merv Griffin show. And it wasn’t until years after that that I learned about not only his impact on the civil rights movement, but more importantly, how a life should be lived, as I read quotes like, “The time is always right to do what is right” that resonated with a deeper truth than the usual Salada teabag wisdom I heard as I was growing up.
So I was a little surprised to find “The Mountaintop,” the often brilliant, and extraordinarily human portrayal of one of the 20th century’s most influential figures, was not so much of a genuflection to King as an examination of him as a flesh and blood man. And I was definitely not prepared for how many laughs the show would provide. Powered by tremendous performances by Joe Wilson, Jr. and Mia Ellis, this is a play that delivers on multiple levels – historical, dramatic, and yes, spiritual.
The play opens in King’s room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3rd, 1968 (the night before his assassination), with King sending Ralph Abernathy out to get him a pack of Pall Malls (cigarettes) – the first sign of his humanness. He has just finished delivering his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech on behalf of the sanitation workers in Memphis, and is preparing to write his next speech, entitled, “America is Going to Hell,” when he realizes he needs coffee to keep him going. He orders room service, and a beautiful young motel maid enters, bringing him his coffee. The rest of this entirely fictitious, sometimes hilarious, but ultimately moving work centers on the conversation between King and Camae, the maid. While one might think the play would be about him bestowing his wisdom on the uneducated young woman, it is Camae who ultimately schools the worn, fearful and flawed King on the final day of his life.
We know this story is not going to be a gushy love letter to Dr. King (who was rumored to be a womanizer) when within minutes of meeting the young woman, he not so subtly suggests that she consider his room as a place to take a quick “nap” during her shift. When she rebuffs him by saying that she doesn’t yet know what rules she can get away with breaking in her new job, he asks her in a voice, oozing with charm, “So what kind of rules does a little lady like you break?”
“None that involves no preacher, I tells you that,” she responds, serving notice that she’ll be no pushover for the icon, although he persists throughout the evening. But this is no trashing of America’s most important civil rights leader, either. If anything, one gets a deeper appreciation for King as you come to realize what a monumental struggle he faced –not only from racist pro-segregation forces but his own government, particularly the FBI. We see King expressing his doubts about whether the movement is even having any effect on white America, but we also see his ego on display (which Camae helps to deflate) as he worries about his legacy.
What really drives this play (other than playwright Katori Hall’s stunning gift for meaningful and very funny dialogue) is the performances of its leads, Wilson and Ellis. Wilson, a member of the Trinity Rep Company since 2005 (his portrayal of Jud Fry in last year’s “Oklahoma” was disturbingly brilliant) delivers a three dimensional Dr. King, as he is alternately charismatic, frightened, impassioned and prideful, and when he is called upon to be the great orator that King was, Wilson does a credible job – no easy trick considering we’re talking about MARTIN LUTHER KING. Ellis is nothing short of amazing in her role, accomplishing the near-impossible task of playing an uneducated person with a wisdom that surpasses that of one of the world’s great spiritual leaders, and she handles the task with aplomb.
The play feels a little long and occasionally redundant at times, but these are minor quibbles with a solid piece of work. People should see this play, not because it was MLKs birthday and Black History Month is fast approaching. See it because it reminds us that the struggle is worth it – no matter what the cost – and also because it’s a really good play. For more info, go to: https://www.trinityrep.com/Online/default.asp