―excerpted from “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered on April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple in Memphis, TN, the night before his assassination.
Seated dead center in the theater of the Wells, I wait patiently, along with the rest of the opening night audience, as a tall man with a lean build, moves tiredly around a rather pedestrian looking motel room. We’ve already seen him come in from the rain, and watched him shout to his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, to pick him up a pack of cigarettes.
We all know he’s supposed to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but we aren’t yet treated to an up close view of his face. So shortly after he splashes water on that famous face in the tiny bathroom of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, he finally steps out ― Dr. King, into clear view. And even though his face is leaner… a bit different than we remembered, it’s still him.
The beauty of playwright Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, a hugely ambitious play that imagines, in a heavily constructed way, the last night of Dr. King’s life, is the sincere humanity that she brings to the twentieth century’s greatest social movement leader.
This Dr. King, portrayed dazzlingly well by Chicago actor and playwright, Cedric Mays, is a man who smokes cigarettes, uses a bit of profanity, and most significantly, entertains the clear advances of a young woman ― who is not his wife. This King also has a bit of a subversive sense of humor, which the aforementioned young housekeeper/temptress, Camae, portrayed with applause-worthy comedic timing and saucy vigor, by DC native, Jessica Frances Dukes, seductively pulls out of him.
Dr. King is about to die. We as an audience know this is his last night alive, after he’s given a prophetic speech/sermon, on behalf of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. This historical context, understandably, gives the play a palpable heaviness from its very first scene. Yet what’s absolutely remarkable is how Hall’s impressive writing of dialogue injects a surprising amount of humor into this historical drama. Her writing is exquisite in places, and these two highly skilled actors prove perfectly suited to deliver the words that she composed, with aplomb.
Mays and Dukes are definitely well served by their Chicago based director, Derrick Sanders, a Hampton Roads native, who was a stage pupil of iconic African-American playwright August Wilson. Sanders knows how to push his actors into a depth of performance that allows for the truth of the work, regardless of its flaws, and there are many here with Katori’s play, to speak clearly to its audience. He demonstrated this ability, though it was a much easier job, in his last directorial stint with the Virginia Stage Company, steering the stage classic, Fences, to local acclaim and box-office success last season.
So Camae harbors a secret. Before that is revealed or even suggested though, the chemistry between this alluring, young southern belle/feminist, and the 39 year old Civil Rights icon, is nearly, as the cliché suggest, electric. They flirt…and talk shit to each other. She comforts him when he’s visibly unnerved by the sound of intense thunder, and challenges him regarding his philosophy based strategy of non-violent resistance. They even talk about Malcolm X.
This first half of the play (there is no intermission), makes for engrossing theatre, period. It’s the plot twist that results from Camae’s “reveal” in the second half which leads the play down a path of didactic sappiness. It robs the work of some artistic credibility even…till it is thankfully saved by some of the fantastical visual elements written by Hall, and staged remarkably well at the Wells, as well as the ferocity of performances provided by the two actors down that final stretch.
Much credit goes to scenic designer, Courtney O’Neill, and sound and lighting designers, Ray Nardelli and Jesse Klug, respectively, for elevating the play, to a place of significant visual grandeur. The set works very well throughout the entire evening.
So it really becomes clear, towards the end of the play, that we as an audience are best served by viewing this work as a theatrical Psalm of sorts. It’s Christian mysticism, allegory and protest art ― all afoot here. And so once that’s understood, the warmth and power of Hall’s story about this King, is undeniable. And more importantly, this Virginia production of The Mountaintop, with its flaws and all, is a compelling, important night of theatre, worthy of a King… and worthy of being seen.
THE MOUNTAINTOP by Katori Hall and directed by Derrick Sanders; this production presented by The Virginia Stage Company; with Cedric Mays as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. & Jessica Frances Dukes as Camae; Production Stage Manager, Matthew G. Marholin and Assistant Stage Manager (Chicago), JoHannah Hail. Runs through March 16th. Tickets available online at vastage.com or at 757-627-1234.