“I don’t look at it as a character. I look at it as embodying his energy,” said Gilbert Glenn Brown, who is playing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in L.A. Theatre Works’ production of The Mountaintop, in town this weekend.
“Being honest with it. Seeing his heart. Speaking from that.”
The Mountaintop tells a version of what might have happened on Dr. King’s last night on earth. The setting is Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The only characters are Dr. King and a hotel maid, with whom he shares a fascinating, entertaining, and heartfelt conversation.
I was lucky enough to see the Virginia Stage Company’s take on The Mountaintop a couple of years ago. For a play with such a simple conceit — telling a story we, in very broad strokes, already know — I was shocked to find myself overwhelmed with emotion in the Wells Theatre that night as the curtains closed. Seeing Dr. King embodied by a talented actor is stirring on-its-own; The Mountaintop couples that ethereal presence with such thought provoking moral questions that the body of the viewer goes into a certain transcendental overdrive. This play takes you places.
“It doesn’t really wear off,” said Brown of transitioning out of the role and back into himself. “It stays with me. It makes me really aware of injustices… I have a visceral reaction to it — I have something to say about it. If there’s something I can do in the moment, I deal with it in the moment.”
Brown has played Dr. King in the past. He has also had the honor of playing the role of Malcolm X in other productions.
“I don’t necessarily want to let go of every aspect of (playing him),” Brown said. “It can foster so much transformation and change in the audience.”
The Mountaintop is why theater is worth saving, is worth fighting for. It aspires to not just move its audience, but to guide it to a higher path.
In yet another era of social strife in America, each of us being infused with some Dr. King for an evening might be as close as we can come to panacea. Brown is not sure if there will ever be another Dr. King, but maybe that’s not who we should be waiting for.
“The amazing thing is that, we can’t look for one person to do it,” said Brown. “It has to be collective. Everyone being a good citizen. Being responsible, not just for yourself, but for the next person, your brother and sister, for everyone. It’s going to take that.”
“The Mountaintop” plays this Saturday, February 24, at 8pm at the Attucks Theatre. For more info or tickets, click here.