Among the objects in the case is a yellowed and frayed newspaper with a picture of Dr. King speaking into microphone. The date on the paper is Monday, April 8, 1968 and the headline reads, "Nonviolent Man Is Martyred." There is a quote beside the picture: "My creed of non-violence is an extremely active force. It has no room for cowardice or even weakness. When a man is fully ready to die, he will not even desire to offer violence. And history is replete with instances of men who by dying with courage and compassion on their lips converted the hearts of their violent opponents." The quote is from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, but "they could have been the words of Martin Luther King, Jr." the paper says.
The paper portrays Dr. King the same way we've been thinking about him for the past half century: as a martyr, a fearless hero ready and willing to die for his cause. Dr. King's legacy has been so important to American history that it is hard to remember that he was not just a leader, but a man with fears and imperfections. In "The Mountaintop", playwright Katori Hall humanizes Dr. King. She shows him smoking, cursing and flirting with a hotel maid. Instead of insisting that Dr. King was "fully ready to die" she shows him trembling in the face of his death. She shows him weak and afraid, restless in a hotel room, desperate not to spend a stormy night alone. Though Hall's play is mostly a fabrication, it provides us with a few hours of intimacy with Dr. King. It asks us to wonder about his fears and weaknesses, which in turn, reaffirms his strength and his role as a martyr.
"The Mountaintop", directed by Linda Kennedy, is a two-actor play that takes place entirely in a dingy room at The Lorraine Hotel in Memphis the night before Dr. King's assassination. The play opens with Dr. King (Ron Conner) alone in his room, unable to relax and work on the speech he will be giving in the morning. He orders coffee from room-service and it is delivered by a maid named Camae (Alicia Reve). Camae is a beautiful and talkative, nervously charming young woman and Dr. King is drawn to her. He insists she stays with him in his room. The two smoke cigarettes and talk about life, death and Dr. King's role in the civil rights movement. As the play goes on, the mysterious Camae seems to know too much about Dr. King and her presence in his room becomes more and more suspicious.
The play, which opened in London in 2009, has since run on Broadway (starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Basset) and won the 2010 Oliver Award for Best New Play. It provides ample challenges both artistically and technically. The script is well-written. Its dialogue is rich and sensual and layered with question about Dr. King, the civil rights movement, and our reluctance to face mortality. Katori Hall creates a surreal world in which flowers grow out of the carpeting and motel walls are broken open by visions of the future. The roles of Dr. King and Camae are difficult, leaving both actors onstage the entire show and challenging them to reach a wide range of intensities throughout the duration of the two hour run time. Both Conner and Reve do great work handling these challenges. Playing someone as iconic as Dr. King is a challenge in and of itself, and Conner does an excellent job making the role his own.
At times the show is a bit rough around the edges. The pacing is sometimes strange and occasionally the actors' movements feel overly staged and contrived. There are also a few technical issues with the sound. However, the production is still strong and earnest and both cast and crew do a great job handling the difficulties that the script presents them with. It is rewarding to watch a company bravely take on a new and somewhat unconventional play like "The Mountaintop." Despite a few minor struggles, the production is intriguing, honest and totally worthwhile.
The last moments of the show are among the strongest. The audience is directly reminded of our place in history and the continued struggle for equality in both America and the rest of the world. The show gives us a minute to feel joy for how far our country has come while also reminding us of our responsibilities and that though "the baton has been dropped before, it's in our hands now and we've got to run with it."
The play continues at The Black Rep through March 9th. For more information visit theblackrep.org or call 314-534-3810.