Arena Stage’s co-production of The Mountaintop, Katori Hall’s play about the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life raises the question of whether to judge a production on how you feel when the curtain falls or the next day.
Judged by the first test, The Mountaintop is a powerful, rousing show that brings audiences to their feet despite being a tad emotionally manipulative. The next day, however, the play feels more like a thin, wasted opportunity to explore the life and legacy of one of the most iconic figures in the twentieth century.
The Mountaintop is set on the last night of King’s life at the Lorraine Motel, the site of his assassination on April 4, 1968. A weary King (Bowman Wright) has returned to his room after delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon to 2,000 people at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. He yearns for coffee and some Pall Mall cigarettes and calls room service.
Enter Camae (Joaquina Kalukango), a saucy, potty-mouthed maid, who has ventured out into the stormy night with a cup of coffee shielded by a newspaper. She immediately recognizes King from his pictures in the paper and his appearances on the TV news.
The two banter about various topics while sharing smokes and whiskey. King shows a charming roguish side as he mildly flirts with Camae while finding reasons to keep her from leaving. Their conversation has moments of humor, but none that is very inventive or clever.
Occasionally their talk turns to civil rights issues. Camae advocates a more militant approach to protests and civil disobedience, telling King that “Walking will only get you so far” (a view that seems surprising in retrospect). Mostly the conversation deals with more mundane topics.
About halfway through the play it takes a major turn towards “The Twilight Zone.” What started out in a very realistic manner turns to fantasy. While saying more would spoil the surprise, near the end of the play Camae gives a thrilling poetry slam recounting the civil rights experience over the past 50 years.
Playwright Katori Hall wrote the play to humanize King, and she succeeds. We learn that King was a heavy smoker with smelly feet who was not above lying to a pretty maid. Yet the play does not balance the more banal, human aspects with much in the way of revelations about King or his cause. The references to a young teen-ager who was killed or the striking sanitation workers feel more obligatory than sincere and audiences will head home without having learned anything new about King.
The challenge of playing such an iconic American figure as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is considerable. There was one prior portrayal of King on Broadway before The Mountaintop’s appearance in the 2011-12 season, 1976’s I Have A Dream with Billy Dee Williams which lasted 88 performances. Older readers may also remember the 1978 miniseries “King: The Martin Luther King Story,” which starred Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson.
Wright does not closely resemble King, nor does he make any attempt to mimic King’s distinctive vocal cadence (probably a wise choice). He faithfully renders the role with lively swagger, but playwright Hall does the actor no favors. For the first half of the play he comes off more like a travelling salesman than an educated and inspirational leader. While it is a distinctive portrayal that is occasionally entertaining, his character is less interesting than expected.
Closes May 23, 3024
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
1 hour, 35 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $40 – $85 (subject to change)
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Director Robert O’Hara is also an accomplished playwright, whose Antebellum and BootyCandy have played at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. He orchestrates a respectful rendition of Hall’s play, buttressing it with the assistance of a talented Arena Stage artistic team. The set of Clint Ramos, the sound design and musical underscoring by Lindsay Jones, the lighting design of Japhy Weideman, and the projection design of Jeff Sugg give top-notch technical support to The Mountaintop.
Fans of Katori Hall’s play may think that people expect too much from a simple fantasy exploration of King’s human side. Yet when an author uses the historical Dr. King as a character and an audience draw, is it too much to expect a little wisdom and insight as a balance to the pillow fight? While The Mountaintop works it way towards an ending that some will find exhilarating and others will view as gimmicky, most audience members will find that the Arena Stage production has little lasting impact.
The Mountaintop by Katori Hall . Directed by Robert O’Hara . Featuring Joaquina Kalukango and Bowman Wright. Creative team: Set & Costume Design: Clint Ramos, Lighting Design: Japhy Weideman, Sound Design & Original Music: Lindsay Jones, Projection Designer: Jeff Sugg, Stage Manager William Cruttenden and Assistant Stage Manager Marne Anderson. Co-producers: Arena Stage the the Mead Center for American Theater and the Alley Theatre . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.
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