Turning a man into myth isn’t complicated — it happens easily, even naturally, over time. But finding the man at the root of the the myth can be trickier, and unfolding his page out of history into his original three dimensions takes a careful touch. Robert O’Hara leads an effort to do such an honor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with the new production of Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop, now playing at Arena Stage.
The play follows a young maid named Camae, working at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in 1968, as she stops by the room of Dr. King on what turns out to be the night before his death. What exactly they talk about, O’Hara says, is for us all to find out.
O’Hara, who both writes and directs, will be a familiar name to those who saw productions of his plays Antebellum and Bootycandy at Woolly Mammoth over the last few seasons. But O’Hara is wearing his director’s hat for The Mountaintop. He spoke with DC Theatre Scene by phone this past week about figuring out what it takes to put on an intimate play about such an iconic figure.
Hunter Styles: You have mentioned that you encountered this play early in its development, specifically at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in 2008.
Robert O’Hara: Yes, Katori and I are friends, and I was very excited to hear that this show of hers was getting a run in London and then heading to Broadway in 2011. So when Molly [Smith, Arena Stage’s Artistic Director] called me and told me that Katori wanted to have me direct this production, I jumped at the chance. The play is a wonderful examination of Martin Luther King, and we’ve had the chance to really explore the characters. It’s an exploration of an icon in a theatrical and audacious situation, and I see it was an exciting example of what theatre can do.
So you see this as an opportunity to find new life or detail in the play, on the heels of the Broadway production?
Definitely. I have to say, when The Mountaintop played on Broadway, I didn’t think that the casting reflected the needs of the play. The Broadway production starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, both Hollywood stars, in the two roles. And they just weren’t the right ages. Camae is supposed to be quite young, of a different generation than King. I thought the Broadway production was missing certain moments of innuendo that can be found in the script. But those two film stars are such big draws that I can see how it would be difficult to not cast them in as commercial a place as Broadway.
This is a co-production with the Alley Theatre in Houston, right? How did that first run go?
It’s interesting… When we did it in Houston, it was for a very different audience, made up mostly of older white people. Different cities definitely have different histories and opinions about politics, race… but whatever the culture of a city is, I think the people that live there deserve to see a play the way it was written, rather than a version of the play that caters directly to a particular group of people. Theatre should allow you to step outside yourself. That’s one of the best things about it.
Do you think moving this show from Houston to DC changes its impact in any way, then?
I think it does, actually. In DC, we see King all over the place. I’m happy to have that strong sense of American history with us, surrounding this project. And it’s also really interesting to me that this production opens on the anniversary of King’s death. It gets me thinking about how close by the Martin Luther King memorial is, just down the street, right here in the same city where King held his March on Washington. It also gets me thinking about the fact that we’ve just re-elected our first black president. This is just a wonderful place and time to do this play.
And in this city, perhaps more than anywhere else, we honor by building monuments. Can you tell us more about how theatre fits into that? How did you balance the man and the myth as you went into this project?
Honestly, I don’t think that there is anything I would do — or that Katori would do — to diminish or denigrate King’s legacy in any way. This play simply is what it is. Katori did not sit down to try and write ‘the Martin Luther King play.’ She was simply writing a play about two special people.
The Mountaintop is an exploration of the last night of a man’s life, and about his last temptations. Now, of course, this character is specifically Dr. King, and we see numerous things on stage that the character and the real-life King share — a name, a pedigree, a certain style — but nobody, including Katori, knows the details of what happened on that final night of King’s life.
But of course that’s why the project is so interesting. Katori didn’t try to put the Selma-to-Montgomery march on stage. She didn’t choose an event for which we have documented evidence. Instead we’re in a hotel, at night, all alone. So I don’t feel any particular reverence when I’m working on this show. I don’t have any need to demonstrate any particular, recognizable powers of King. The responsibility is to the story. And it’s my job to make it clear to the actors that I won’t be requiring them to ‘be significant.’ There’s no need to imitate the iconic here. We have to tell the story as simply and as honestly as we can.
You have actor Bowman Wright in the role of MLK, and Joaquina Kalukango in the role of Camae. What has it been like, working with them?
They’re both highly trained actors and extraordinarily gifted. I’ve worked with Bowman before, and I saw Joaquina in Katori’s last play. They’re also extraordinarily passionate people, which is great for this kind of play. It’s a challenging play, but the setup is wonderful: we are in a very small hotel room occupied by a famous icon and a beautiful woman. That, right there, is an explosive opportunity, with a chance to learn a lot about real people. We’re not trying to make a demigod out of the character of King here. It’s just two really interesting people in a very small room. What comes out is funny, passionate, and sexy.
What are some of the challenges of directing a two-person play?
Well, the main challenge of a two-person play is that you have to keep the central conflict going in order to keep both characters in the room. That’s the difficult, exciting center of a play like this. How long can you keep conflict active in the room? So the project becomes about keeping the ball in the air and finding out exactly why it takes these characters this certain amount of time to resolve, or try to resolve, the problem together.
And in a way that shows them to be normal people, to a degree. Is that right?
Right. It’s true that in 2013, many of us don’t really think of King as a physical person. He’s a face on a poster. We don’t think right away of the man himself — someone who is attractive, or is attracted to others. But no one can deny that his fame in 1968 is an important element in how power works in this play. Why would Martin Luther King allow this woman to stay in the room with him? The story begins at the end of a very long week, and a very long year. He’s exhausted. He’s in need of a better diet, of time to rest. There are all kinds of reasons to make Camae leave. But he doesn’t.
Katori has had to balance the public King and the private King, and that’s our job now too. The private King doesn’t just give speeches every few minutes. So, who is he in private?
And playing with sexuality is also a very big thing in the play. It’s funny… Joaquina said to me that she’s not often given the chance to play adults on stage, because as an actress she looks very young. She tends to always play kids and ingénues. Now, here, she plays the last temptation of Dr. King, so we got to push the envelope a little with their sexuality and comedy together.
That kind of sincerity, in performing together, must take time and attention.
Yes. The actors have been very gung-ho but, equally importantly, they like each other! Nothing beats that. If you’re working with only two actors and they don’t like each other, you’ve got a hard road to travel.
Do you think at all consciously about the need to avoid glorifying this as a ‘Martin Luther King play’?
Not really. What we are doing with this show is very exciting on its own merit. It’s an unusual idea, but accessible too. And it’s not especially complex. It is what happens when a talented playwright takes the time to imagine a night, over forty years ago, when a very famous man finally gets a moment to himself. And then, out of the blue, a beautiful woman shows up with a cup of coffee.
The Mountaintop plays through May 12, 2013.
Closes May 12, 2013
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20566
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays