It is not fanciful to compare Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate today, with Moses. Like the biblical figure, Dr. King led his people out of captivity. Like Moses, the Georgia preacher struggled with his fractious followers, who were drawn to false idols in the face of their leader’s stern and exacting principles. And like the man who led the Israelites out of Egypt, the man who led America up the path toward equality died without witnessing the fulfillment of his dreams.
So playwright Katori Hall, late of Arena Stage’s playwright-in-residence program, invokes the right metaphor to lead us to King, who in this play is in the last day of his life. Her Martin Luther King (Shawn Hamilton) is an extraordinary man who is ordinary too; he bellows at an offstage Ralph David Abernathy to pick up some Pall Malls; he urinates in an offstage bathroom; he calls home and comforts his daughter, who is having trouble sleeping. Moses doubtlessly did most of these things too.
He calls room service for some coffee. Camae (Myxolydia Tyler), who brings it, also brings something else – a witty, profane voice; a sympathetic ear and a perceptive intellect; some more Pall Malls (the Reverend is out) and some whiskey to sweeten his coffee.
She is also quite beautiful. Reverend King, like many humans (including the man who occupied the White House at the time, and his predecessor) had difficulty remaining faithful to his spouse, and you can see him become infatuated with this saucy, intelligent, attractive woman. This could get creepy fast but in CenterStage’s strong production it does not. The flirtatious dialogue is grounded in mutual respect, and it is soon clear that the erotic possibilities will not be consummated.
Nonetheless, there is sizzle in the background as Camae critiques everything from the great man’s stinky feet to his leadership of the movement. King has already achieved those objectives which the white population had supported most broadly: integration, voting rights, and non-discrimination in employment. He now seeks further, more controversial, remedies and it is not going well. Many of his white followers believe that the mission is accomplished and the problem is solved. On the other hand, many African-Americans feel he is not moving fast enough, and have abandoned his leadership for that of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X.
Camae, invited by the great civil rights leader to propose her solutions, dons his shoes and suitcoat. “Kill the white man,” she says, “with your mind.” Rather than integrate white lunch counters, she argues, build some of your own. And in this brief speech, she encapsulates the enduring struggle of King’s later years – integration vs. Black separatism. It is the high point of the play.
Hall instills the play with authority and credibility in part by installing it with great authenticity. She uses, exclusively, language that was in existence in 1968. At one point King tells Abernathy that he shouldn’t think him “sadity” (i.e., snooty) for smoking Pall Malls, and Camae calls her cigarettes “squares.” These terms have been out of currency for thirty years or more, but Hamilton and Tyler use them naturally, as Hall obviously intends. On the other hand, there is not a single word or phrase in the play (except something I cannot talk about) that came into use later than 1968, helping The Mountaintop achieve what every history play requires: fidelity to history.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah brings the same commitment to historical accuracy to the production, and in particular to Neil Patel’s superb set, which embraces 1968 in every particular, from the 1960s furniture to the twin beds. (As America in 1968 was not as awash in wealth as it is now, it was not as unusual for two men on a business trip to share a bedroom as it is now, and the room was known as the “King-Abernathy suite.”) Patel also summons up a thunderstorm; we see the rain as it rattles against the window, and with every crack of thunder Dr. King flinches, as any man who had been the subject of death threats for a decade might.
Closes February 24, 2013
700 North Calvert Street
1 hour, 25 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $25 – $62
Tuesdays thru Sundays
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Hamilton, who bears some resemblance to Rev. King, does not attempt an impersonation, but he invokes King sufficiently for us to understand how such a man could lead a people into profound change. He gives us a King who is charming and grave, witty and troubled, man and mountain himself. Tyler’s Camae exudes a power which at first seems to come from her sexuality, but as the play proceeds we see it comes from the knowingness at the core of her being. These are two actors who know their characters, and as a result of their performance, we do too.
About midway through the production there is a transformation which changes the nature of the characters and the nature of the story. It is profoundly moving, invoking history as it does, but afterward some of the play’s energy dissipates. The dialogue is just as crisp and witty; the performances are just as good; but the stakes have changed. In the first part, the whole of future is in play, but in the second part we are grounded in the historical present, looking at the past. I am sorry I cannot be more specific.
On April 4, 1968, at 6:01 in the evening, James Earl Ray put a bullet in Dr. King’s head; he was pronounced dead an hour later. His heart was stilled. Our hearts were broken, and our nation nearly was as well. But it was his life, not his death, which was the seminal event in our history; and America’s great drama is not on the mountaintop, but what lays beyond the mountain.
The Mountaintop by Katori Hall . Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah . Produced by CenterStage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor