The 1963 shooting of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist Minister and civil rights activist, whose passionate 1963 “I Have a Dream” (before 200,000 at the Lincoln Memorial in D.C.) and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermons put him in the spotlight as #1 shaker of the Civil Rights movement. He was on the rise to becoming one of the greatest outspoken orators of the time.
His ‘Mountaintop’ sermon was delivered at a rally in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in 1963. The very next day he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with the striking workers. To say that his life was in danger at all times would be an understatement. “Fear is his companion, his lover”.
Fast-forward about fifty years. Enter 32-year-old playwright Katori Hall, Oliver Award Winner of the then new play “The Mountaintop”.
In her ninety plus minute play, now streaming through May 26th in collaboration with by American History Theatre and Roustabouts Theatre Company and Teen Youth Performing Arts Theatre Company Repertory Theatre (thanks to the direction of Kandace Crystal), she re-imagines MLK’s last night on this earth in the seedy Lorraine Hotel room # 306 (to be exact) the night before his assassination (April 3, 1968).
In what Hall conjures as a conversation between King (Caiel Noble) and the pretty little chambermaid, Camae (Ashley Graham) sent (supposedly) by the hotel upon his request for room service, the play unfolds somewhat like a TV part sit com/ part come to Jesus.
The play opens as King (Noble) is ushered into the room by his most trusted deputy and best friend Ralph Abernathy, whom he immediately sends out again to get a pack of Pall Malls. Left in the room alone, he deadbolts the door pulls the curtains over the windows, turns on the lamp and starts reciting the beginnings of his next sermon. (“Why America is going to hell…”) He then calls for room service.
And so, it goes. They jibe and play. He wants cigarettes with his coffee, she scolds because he doesn’t take care of himself. We glance at his frailties, his non-violent marches; does she like him better with or without his moustache?
They debate seriously about the work he has yet to finish. He is paranoid about his room being bugged and she reminds him that the size of his FBI file is thicker than a bible. His concerns about his role here on earth as a leader and Civil Rights Activist are contrasted against his playful self as a womanizer; a fragile human being who flirts with the chambermaid while speaking to his wife and children on the phone.
Finally, after some bantering about and she refers to him by his childhood name, she admits that she was sent to help him make it through the night. “God said I gotta get you ready to come on home”. And while he begs for more time she has to convince him that someone else will have to pick up the baton.
In one of the more funny yet serious scenes King finally gets to bargain with God about his job here on earth “I’m falling into the ocean of death. How dare you take me now. NOW! I beg of You. I plead-God, how dare you?”
For those in the know, history left its mark for all to see as the television cameras rolled outside on the balcony of room 306 at 6:01 PM, April 4th 1968.Yours truly will never forget those moments.
His legacy as a man and Civil Rights leader, as examined by Hall in this particular telling is somewhat choppy and repetitive . It doesn’t always convince. His life is worthy of a more serious and complex examination.
That said, between 1963 the the election of Obama to the present some progress has been made. With the spotlight now on BLM, hopefully many more changes will follow.
Both Noble and Graham play beautifully off one another. Noble is natural and easy; not trying to impersonate King or look larger than life. He was after all flesh and blood with many shortcomings. Graham is playful funny and delightful, cautious and with a purpose. The chemistry flows from one to another and the some banter comes with underlying truths and some just plain frivolous.
For an interesting read you might want to check out "Hellhound on His Trail " by Hampton Sides
Reiko Huffman designed the motel room set. Mashun Tucker, the lighting, Marc Akiyama, sound (lots of lightning crashing) and Beonica Bullard, costumes.
“The Mountaintop”is streaming through May 16th.
For more information go to www.themountaintopsd.com