What if you knew that this evening was your last on earth? What would you do? And, to complicate matters further, what if you were the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and you had this information?
That’s the premise of Katori Hall’s play, The Mountaintop, now through March 31 at San Diego REP’s Lyceum Space. Full of twists and turns, this West Coast premiere may not entirely satisfy, but it will engage.
Set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, The Mountaintop opens with Dr. King (Larry Bates) returning from delivering his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech in support of the Memphis sanitary workers, who have been on strike. He’s tired and hoarse, and he hasn’t had anything to eat, but he also has a speech to prepare for the following day. An order for coffee brings a woman named Camae (Danielle Moné Truitt) to his door. Dressed in a maid’s uniform, Camae is a strikingly beautiful woman, and Dr. King is more than willing to put aside his work for a few minutes of conversation, and maybe a little flirting.
Camae, it turns out, is both new on the job and not all that she seems. She has quite a bit of information about the civil rights and religious leader, and for a while it appears that she’s come there to confront him with his sins and inadequacies, particularly from a woman’s point of view. But, Camae’s information runs even deeper, and eventually she convinces Dr. King that this night is his last on earth.
Once the notion sinks in that Camae is correct about his impending death, Dr. King responds in all-too-human ways. His behavior progresses through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, down to attempting to bargain for his life. In the end, though, he accepts his fate, even though he knows that while progress has been made the battles haven’t been won. In fact, Ms. Hall’s text implies, racism is so persistent that the battles may never be won.
Many people of a certain age count Dr. King as a major figure in their lives. I know that I am one of those people, having been in the audience for one of Dr. King’s speeches while I was a college student. For those who wish to venerate him as a martyr, The Mountaintop may not play well, as it portrays him as full of frailties and doubts, and finds his movement to have been both exhilarating and disappointing. In The Mountaintop, Dr. King is a man, not a saint, and he’s subject to the same feet of clay that many women find in men.
All this might be fine if the storytelling were more conventional, but Ms. Hall has opted to invoke a sort of magical realism to move her plot off-center. This technique has the desired effect, but a skeptic like me has to wonder if it isn’t a cheat, from a narrative point of view. I know that I walked out of the performance feeling cheated. Others may react differently, however.
The REP’s production completely reconfigures the usual set-up of the smaller of the two Lyceum theatres (and, if you are used to the usual configuration, entering the theatre and finding your seat may prove to be somewhat disorienting). Christopher Ward’s dingy motel room allows Marc Anthony Thompson’s projections to take over the attention as needed, though sometimes Sherrice Kelly’s lighting design takes over in annoyingly noticeable ways.[php snippet=1]
I’d describe Roger Guenveur Smith’s direction and the performances of both Ms. Truitt and Mr. Bates as highly capable but lacking in star power. The Broadway production featured Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson, and perhaps it takes a certain level of acting wattage to make this show go. I would love to see what the two understudies, Antonio TJ Johnson and Kaja Amado Dunn, would do with these roles.
I’m guessing that different audience members will react differently to Ms. Hall’s play. Some may be enchanted, while others may feel challenged. I doubt, however, that anyone will walk away unmoved.
Follow the link to a video preview of The Mountaintop.