The clues are there even before the start of Katori Hall’s play, The Mountaintop, that what the audience is about to experience lay outside the realm of historical fact. The play is a fictional dramatization of the last, late-evening hours of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before he was gunned down outside his room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. This audience member’s curiosity was piqued by the set created by designer John Iacovelli (lit by Jose Lopez), which represents King’s hotel room entirely in shades of white, save for an old fashioned color television that, from time to time, shows film clips of the era, most importantly the passing of a baton in an Olympic relay race.
As portrayed by the excellent Larry Bates, Dr. King is exhausted after speaking before two thousand people in support of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, his last public appearance, where he delivered his immortal Mountaintop Speech, in which he declared himself free of the fear of death. Alone in his hotel room, he desires nothing more than a cigarette and some coffee. He sent Ralph Abernathy out for the smokes, his favorite, Pall Mall, and called the front desk imploring the staff to bring him a cup of coffee. In a display of understandable paranoia after the FBI had secretly taped some of his private doings and sent a copy to his wife, the Reverend goes about his room checking under a table, disassembling the phone and peering into the lampshade looking for a bug.
In a bump off the road of reality, the coffee and the cup served by an amazingly attractive maid, Camae (gorgeous, provocative, sass-talking Danielle Truitt), is mimed. When Camae offers King a cigarette, the Pall Mall pack is real as is the lighter, but the cigarettes they both puff on are mimed. Camae plays off King’s well-known regard for attractive women. Their play of words is fast and scintillating. The range of conversation is eclectic and vast. And when the plot lurches into magic realism, it is apparent that Camae is on a mission.
Knowledge of the tragedy to come hovers over the play, but the relationship that evolves between the two characters alleviates the burden of that inevitability. Power rocks back and forth between Camae and Dr. King. Though there is an affinity between them, the encounter is not really about sex or even the possibility of it. As the situation becomes more clearly defined, The Mountaintop surges toward its climax with mounting power and is tremendously affecting.
The sound and projection designs by Marc Anthony Thompson add greatly to the drama, with thunder punctuating the action. Camae’s brilliant, dynamic oration at the play’s penultimate moment, and the video montage that accompanies it, are almost overwhelming.
The Mountaintop humanizes Dr. King without diminishing his accomplishment or tarnishing his legacy. The production, directed by Roger Guenveur Smith, is enthralling, affecting and wonderfully entertaining.
The Mountaintop runs through April 10 at The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles