The setting is real, the content, imagined.
In The Mountaintop, playwright Katori Hall depicts a fictional conversation between the Reverend Martin Luther King and the maid who brings him late night room service. It’s room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where a single room is ten dollars and a double, just twelve. It’s also the night before his assassination and Dr. King has earlier completed his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address. He was in town to support the black sanitary public works employees who were on strike.
What follows next is a ninety minute drama set in real time where the reverend begins his evening by ordering room service – he needs coffee immediately – and where he will eventually get a premonition of his death that will occur at the next day.
The play begins in a casual manner. Five minutes or so before house lights down, as you’re still taking your seats and making sure your cell is switched off, Dr. King (James T. Alfred) makes his entrance. He checks the phone, looks around his motel room and checks the drawers. It’s not immediately apparent what he’s doing or why, but instinct tells you he might be checking the room for bugs, a suspicion later acknowledged. He then sits on the bed, hands on knees, and contemplates. A crack of thunder outside the motel room causes King to jump. Even before the play has begun, a tone is set.
“Why America is going to hell,” Dr. King suddenly announces out loud. It’s not a question, it’s a statement, and he says it again, only this time with a different inflection. The doctor is practicing a speech and he’s trying to get it right. “They’re really gonna burn me on the cross for that one,” he says to himself and continues to practice until another crack of thunder from outside interrupts.
The idea of presenting a play that depicts what might have happened with Dr. King the night before his death is a good one, but playwright Hall has theatrically grander and more demanding issues in mind than just a conversation between a celebrity motel guest and the maid, most of which are revealed in the final thirty minutes, concluding with an ending so visually and emotionally powerful you may leave the theatre somewhat overwhelmed but at the same time wishing that the first two thirds had been more engaging. The play premiered in London in 2009 and won the Olivier Best new Play award. It’s a good play, but it’s not great play, which makes the win all the more baffling.
The maid is called Camae and she is played with unstoppable ebullient energy by Erika LaVonn. Her bubbly presence and playful force are so infectious you begin to suspect long before a big reveal – and it’s a really big one – that Camae isn’t quite what she seems, but there’s a lot of ground to cover before we get there. It’s obvious that there’s something about Camae we do not fully understand. The play spends a long time having Dr. King and Camae exchanging barbs, cracking jokes and generally flirting with each other but you wonder where it’s going and why it’s taking so long to get there. Knowing what we know of the allegations of Dr. King’s adultery you wonder if maybe the play is heading in that direction. When Dr. King pronounces Camae’s name correctly she says, “Sounds good coming out of your mouth,” to which he replies, “A lot of things do.” At a later moment, after Camae tells him she can tell from the look in his eyes he finds her attractive, she states, “You’re blushing.” “Which is hard for a black man,” Dr. King responds.
But the serious side continues to emerge every time lightning strikes. The man jumps. He’s continually on edge. It’s when Dr. King opens the motel door and finds he’s walled in with at least four foot of snow suddenly blocking his entrance that you suspect something unnatural might be happening. “You put some hippie pills in my coffee?” Dr. King demands of Camae not accepting the evidence of his eyes.
What follows is a reveal so startling it takes several minutes to fully comprehend the sudden change of direction, and not everyone is going to buy it, particularly when Camae hands the phone to Dr. King having placed a call on someone’s futuristic cell phone. To discuss further or to explain how in the final minutes we leave the claustrophobic confines of room 306 and become one with the universe would be an injustice, but the moment is overwhelming. You will be both stirred and shaken, and even though the message tells you nothing you didn’t already know, as directed by Lou Bellamy with outstanding sound and stirring visuals from Martin Gwinup it remains a thrilling and completely unexpected moment of inspirational theatre supported by a speech delivered with such overwhelming power by Alfred that goosebumps are all but guaranteed.
Vicki Smith’s scenic design, recreating the interior of the Lorraine Motel is effective in its simplicity, perfectly recreating the plain motel room with its two double beds, the view of the lighted sign through the large windows and the slightly stained walls with its watermarks on the wall paper.
The Mountaintop was a huge hit in London though less so on Broadway. Maybe America is too close to the subject. From a distance, European audiences see America and its history in a different light than here. Broader strokes are perhaps easier to take. It’s difficult to say. Perhaps part of the problem is that The Mountaintop feels as though it should be more important and insightful than it is, or maybe the big reveal isn’t as clever as you might hope after having invested a chunk of time waiting for it, for something, to occur. But there’s no denying the startling impact of its conclusion, the power of the two leads and the overall, handsome looking production Arizona Theatre Company has delivered to the Herberger.
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David Appleford is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society and the American Theatre Critics Association
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