The Mountaintop is Top-notch at Theaterworks
By Amy J. Barry
It’s no accident that Hartford’s Theaterworks production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall coincides with the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.
The two-person, one-act play that fantasizes what might have occurred in King’s hotel room the night before his death, won England’s 2010 Olivier Award for best play. It went on to Broadway in 2011 starring Samuel L. Jackson as King and Angela Bassett as Camae, the hotel maid. Jamil A.C. Mangan and Courtney Thomas do justice to the roles in the Theaterworks production, under the insightful direction of Rob Ruggiero, the theater’s artistic director.
The intriguing tour de force is both supernatural and super-realistic. The action all takes place in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where King has just returned, dead tired and beaten down after delivering his masterful “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
MLK’s words, “We as a people will go to the Promised Land” is broadcast throughout the theater, foreshadowing what’s to come -- and how eminent Civil Rights leader’s own trip will be.
Set designer Evan Adamson meticulously recreated the famous hotel room -- traveling to Memphis to do first-hand research. Although the hotel was turned into the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991, room 306 was preserved as the feature exhibit.
A drenching rain punctuated by booming thunder and lightening rages outside King’s room. Mangan assumes his role with composure and a confident oratorical voice, while also revealing the vulnerable, human side of the famous figure.
King orders a cup of coffee from the front desk and the feisty Camae delivers it donning a cheerful yellow uniform. Bassett is a live wire as the smart, seductive, independent young black woman, sharing a cigarette, cussing like a sailor and then apologizing, and flattering the hotel guest, whose fame does intimidate her in the least.
“Wrinkles look good on a man,” she says. “Especially if they got some money to go with them wrinkles.”
She witnesses King’s feet of clay when the velocity of the storm increases, frightening him out of his wits.
In a marvelous scene, Bassett puts on Mangan’s jacket and shoes and stands of the bed -- a match for the great King himself -- passionately preaching “A new day is coming. Today is the day I tell you to kill the white man, not with your hands or guns, but with your minds.”
No longer just the maid delivering coffee, she challenges King to think about whether the voice of violence is the only voice white men will listen to…to confront his past, his present, and imagine the legacy he will leave for his people, and what the future will hold.
The shift to the supernatural begins when Camae begins calling King Michael, his given name. He freaks out, demanding to know how she could possibly know this -- assuming she’s a spy. But she’s not a spy. Without giving it away, let’s just say her boss isn’t with the CIA.
King admits that with so many death threats, he’s prayed for his to be over. But he’s not ready. In a scene both amusing and poignant, Camae puts him on the phone with her boss and he pleads for “Her” to give him more time to finish his work.
But Camae convinces King that his followers, namely “Jessie” (Jackson was ordained two months after MLK was shot) would continue his mission on earth, and that all his sins would be washed away.
Although the play runs the risk of getting saccharinely religious -- it doesn’t. The actors’ interactions remain essentially human even after Camae’s true identity is revealed. They argue, apologize, and crack jokes like believable, conflicted, complex people, making us privy to the insecurities and doubts of the historical icon.
Despite the quality acting and impressive set, at times one feels a bit antsy and claustrophobic, as though we’re stuck along with the characters in the drab hotel room where the entire 90 minute, intermission-less performance takes place. But perhaps that’s the intent of the playwright and director -- to make us feel as trapped and at the end of the rope as MLK the night before the fateful day that was to follow.
Performances of Mountaintop run through May 5 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street in downtown Hartford. For tickets call 860-527-7838 or online www.theaterworkshartford.org.
This review appeared in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.