How history is remembered, taught and reflected upon is often relative. There is no “one way,” just as there is no one lesson to encompass all we can learn from the past or from folks who lived it. As we enter Black History Month, it seems especially appropriate to highlight one of our nation’s most influential African-American leaders in history, Dr. Martin Luther King, who was assassinated outside of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, almost 50 years ago (local fact: Dr. King was scheduled to travel to Wilmington for a speaking engagement on the day he was assassinated).
Yet, what happened outside his hotel room on April 4, 1968, is not the focus of Katori Hall’s play “The Mountaintop.” It centers on what she imagines happened inside room 306 the night before—hours after King’s final speech with the immortal line, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” Audiences will see how he spent his final hours with a motel maid, Camae.
L.A. Theatre Works began touring January 12 with their production of “The Mountaintop,” directed by Shirley Jo Finney. It will stop in at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium on February 1.
“Our first performance was actually an educational performance for students,” L.A. Theatre Works producer Susan Loewenberg notes. “Apparently, the talk back with students was extraordinary. They asked penetrating questions—they were so stimulated—and the role of theatre, or ‘good art,’ is to raise questions, raise issues, raise problems, and then work them out in whatever time is allotted.”
Throughout their interactions during his final night on Earth, Camae (Karen Malina White) challenges King (Gilbert Glenn Brown) in debate. Audiences are swept up and transported into a world of clever repartee, rich in King’s ideas and philosophies, all based on extensive research by Hall. All details of King’s life, down to his preferred brand of cigarettes and “smelly feet,” were carefully incorporated into the production.
“Katori immersed herself,” Loewenberg says. “She did a tremendous amount of research with regard to [King’s] philosophy, his platform—there are whole and parts of his most famous speeches replayed within the play—she did a lot of research into his personal life. There are couple of charming phone conversations with his wife and his kids that are very personal.”
It’s an incredible task for a playwright to pen an exciting story with characters to connect with, but to feature content on an ever-present issue, like race and its lasting effects on society, makes it all the more impactful. To watch people work through the issue, their process, is a great lesson in and of itself to Loewenberg.
“Difficult problems, difficult questions have a process by which they need to be wrestled with, worked through and resolved,” she explains. “Sometimes the result is less than satisfactory. Sometimes the result is tragic. And sometimes the result is absolutely wonderful. . . . That’s what good plays do: They challenge us every time we watch them. And ‘The Mountaintop’ is certainly one of those plays because you’re watching a great man face a very tragic and unfair destiny in some ways he’s powerless to stop.”
In “The Mountaintop,” Dr. King wrestles with his destiny like many mortals might in the final hours. Nevertheless, despite everyone knowing what the ultimate outcome will be, there are moments of levity and laughter. Moreover, Martin Luther King Jr. was not a perfect man of unwavering character. He, too, had his demons and weaknesses. In fact, there are two sides of King portrayed: public and private.
“I think that’s the genius of the play,” Loewenberg observes. “If the play were just a dark, somber [production], you wouldn’t want to watch it.
“Martin Luther King is full of life: He smoked, he loved women—he wasn’t exactly ‘Mr. Faithful,’” Loewenberg continues. “He lived life. And here comes this gal [Camae], the hotel maid—she’s cute, she perky, she’s sexy, she’s feisty. Most of the play has a lot of sexual undertones and is flirty, which makes it fun. The other thing, of course, [are] these wonderful elements of black culture; the way [King and Camae] relate to each other and have their own code—they have an immediate connection.”
Loewenberg originally saw the play on Broadway in New York City, which starred Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, after it premiered in London in 2009. L.A. Theatre Works first recorded “The Mountaintop” as a radio production directed by Roger Guenveur Smith at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater in May of 2016; it starred Aja Naomi King and Larry Powell. When it came time to recast for the full theatre-style production, the bar was set pretty high.
“I am just thrilled with what [Karen Malina White and Gilbert Glenn Brown] have done and what director Shirley Jo has done,” Loewenberg praises. “For the audience, it will feel like a very interesting full production. . . . The play inspires you and makes you proud to be an American, and I think it is something very crucial right now in this country, and we are really honored to be a part of that.”
By the end of the play, audiences are still invested emotionally with the characters; rooting for them despite knowing what the ultimate end will be. There’s a mourning transition phase for both King and audiences for what is about to happen, followed by acceptance by King’s character. But just as imminent of King’s legacy, it doesn’t end there.
Camae ends the evening with a rap monologue. The poem highlighting events from the time of King’s assassination and even touches on the completion of this play, which happened during Barack Obama’s tenure, almost bringing it full circle to what King fought for and to what it led America to in 2008.
“The truth of a significant movement is bigger than any one leader, and of course, [King’s] death, in a way, makes the movement even stronger as we know today,” Loewenberg says. “But when you think of the greatness and nobility of [King], you can’t help but think about the leadership right now; the contrast is obvious. You cannot help comparing the issue of leadership, [and] King personified leadership, and there is no way the audience is not sitting there making a comparison to what’s happening right now.”