It’s always somewhat shocking to remember that Martin Luther King Jr. was only 39 when he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, and to imagine what more he would have accomplished in the fight for equal rights for all.
Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop, now having its regional premiere at Jubilee Theatre, directed by Tre Garrett, inspired us to ask that question — not just what more he had in him, but what came from the seeds he had sown. Perhaps more importantly, the play dares to present King not just as an icon of the 20th century, but as human.
The setting is the night before the assassination, as King (played by Bryan Pitts) prepares for the next day’s meetings and speeches in that dingy Lorraine room (set nicely conceived by Ellen Doyle Mizener). A visit from maid Camae (Ashley Wilkerson) changes those plans.
Over the course of the 75-minute, intermissionless play, we see King as a heavy smoker and womanizer (things we knew), and even telling a white lie to wife Coretta over the phone and admitting that his feet, holey socks and all, stink. Was it these humanizing liberties by Hall that sparked controversy when the play opened on Broadway in 2011, after a successful and award-winning run in London?
We have to remember, prompted by Hall and her vivid use of language, that the Greater Good can overshadow human fallibility.
Pitts is a commanding presence in an iconic role, with tones of the many emotions that make up such a complicated character — although you want him to dig deeper yet. It’s easy to see why this sketch of King instantly takes a liking to the sassy and beautiful Camae, because Wilkerson has charm, charisma and confidence to spare. She also has a handle on the Memphis, country-but-not-too-Southern accent. When she says early on that her job is to “clean up other people’s messes,” you know there’s more than a literal truth in that.
Garrett keeps the action moving in the small hotel room, without it ever feeling cramped or rushed. He has terrific support from Nikki DeShea Smith’s lighting (which really comes into play late in the show), David Lanza’s sound and Barbara O’Donoghue’s costumes.
Without ruining anything, the turn the play takes is fairly easy to pick up on. But the surprise ending is one of those moments in the theater that inspires as much as it amazes with its feat of stagecraft. In the end, like every important historical figure that contributed significantly to progress and the future, King’s legacy is larger than the man himself. But to remember that it started with a human with a dream — that’s priceless.
Through March 2
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